If COVID-19 trends continue upward, Kentucky could become the next Missouri — that is, unless more residents get vaccinated.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that the Delta variant of the coronavirus sharply has been taking hold within the state, and vaccination is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading even further. In a July 19 briefing with Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, Beshear said that younger residents are increasingly getting the Delta variant of COVID-19, largely because they are the ones who are less likely to have been vaccinated.
"The Delta variant is serious and it is even a deadly threat to non-vaccinated Kentuckians," Beshear said. "Vaccines are still offering significant protection against serious illness and death, including against the Delta variant. But we are seeing more cases among vaccinated Kentuckians because of the Delta variant."
"Every death from this point forward is preventable," Stack added.
Beshear said that after the terrifyingly high numbers of COVID-19 cases last winter, the situation calmed down a bit as vaccines were introduced to older age groups and high-risk individuals beginning in January. But as vaccine administration for all age groups has plateaued and more people are gathering both indoors and outdoors, the Delta variant has risen quickly in Kentucky and other nearby states — three straight weeks of steep case and hospitalization increases, Beshear said. Some experts are pointing to large July 4 holiday gatherings as superspreader events.
Beshear said that while his older child has been vaccinated, his daughter who is under 12 years old has not (current vaccines are authorized for ages 12 and older). He said that his family is eagerly awaiting vaccine approval for younger children.
"Let's make sure that we break through a myth. Kids can get COVID. They do get COVID. And they're contracting COVID at basically the same rate or generally the same curve, at least, as all other unvaccinated Kentuckians," Beshear said.
The Delta variant is now the nation's dominant strain of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said earlier this month. Delta is much more contagious than the original version of the virus or its previous mutations because of the heavier viral load within the breath that expels from an infected person's mouth, Kentucky's Stack said. Researchers have reported that people infected with the Delta variant have up to 1,000 times more virus than others, presenting great risk when talking or sneezing, especially indoors with low ventilation.
"Delta is maybe 2.5 times more transmissible," Stack said. "It's spreading like wildfire."
Beshear noted that until recently, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Kentucky had fallen below 1% at different times. Now, though, it's at about 5.4%, he said. And that's even higher than the increased national seven-day average positivity rate of 4.0%, according to the CDC.
Experts say that Delta surges are happening primarily in regions where vaccination rates are low, though the variant also has been creeping into population centers as people travel. These "clusters" among unvaccinated populations enable the virus to continue transferring to new people, including some who have been vaccinated.
"The more unvaccinated individuals you come in contact with, the more often you roll the dice on whether or not you might contract it," Beshear said.
The COVID-19 positivity rate in Kentucky's Hart County is 16.67%. Clay County is 14.56%, while Daviess County is 11.39%, based on Kentucky Department for Public Health figures.
The Kentucky counties nearest to Cincinnati — Kenton, Boone and Campbell — all have seen increases in cases over the past several weeks, according to July 20 figures on the Kentucky Department for Public Health dashboard. Kenton County's positivity rate is 3.7%, while Boone County and Campbell County are much higher at 6.8% and 5.76%, respectively.
"The number of COVID-19 cases is rising in NKY," the Northern Kentucky Health Department tweeted Monday.
Beshear said that through Monday, Kentucky has administered about 4.1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to more than 2 million state residents plus visitors. In the last week, about 32,000 vaccine doses were distributed, a significant increase over the prior week, he said.
No vaccine is 100% effective, but according to Yale University, the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccines are about 95%, 94% and 72% effective, respectively. Experts say that the vaccines largely lessen the effects of COVID-19 and its variants, including Delta.
In some regions where coronavirus cases have skyrocketed, officials are starting to consider new health restrictions and are asking residents — including those who have been fully vaccinated — to wear masks when outside the home.
On Tuesday, Beshear cited masks as important tools to stop the spread of the virus and urged Kentucky residents who are unvaccinated or who are at high risk to wear them. He also recommended that people with jobs that face the public wear masks for their own protection and for the protection of others but did not address those whose employers are not taking other robust safety precautions.
Beshear stopped short of returning to a statewide mask mandate and also said that Kentucky would not mandate COVID-19 vaccines.
Jerome Adams, the previous U.S. Surgeon General appointed by former President Donald Trump, recently said that it was "premature" to ease mask restrictions in late May and early June, as Kentucky, Ohio and many other states had done. The CDC had recommended that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks for their own protection or the protection of others, but many local governments used that to walk back all mask mandates, eliminating a preventative measure while vaccination rates continued to decrease.
In Missouri, the Delta variant has taken hold, spreading throughout rural areas and moving into cities like Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield. As Ray Hartmann wrote in a July 13 column for CityBeat sister newspaper The Riverfront Times:
As of this writing, Missouri suffers the highest rate of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in America. It has the second-highest rate of new cases per capita. It has the fourth-highest rate of new deaths
Joplin tops the list of all U.S. cities in the rates of both new cases and hospitalizations in the database maintained by the New York Times. And of the ten municipalities with the highest hospitalization rates, eight are from Missouri.
In Springfield, the fire chief last week employed the phrase “mass casualty event” to describe a recent rash of deaths, accompanied by a shortage of lifesaving medical equipment. The situation is so bad that the federal government deployed a surge team to the city.
During Monday's briefing, Beshear repeatedly said that to prevent Kentucky from becoming like Missouri, more residents — particularly those rural counties — must choose to get COVID-19 vaccinations.
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