Covid cases escalate as schools begin to re-open; Beshear and Stack urge universal masking in schools

Published 7:14 am Tuesday, January 4, 2022

With coronavirus cases and positive-test rate skyrocketing just as students head back to school, Gov. Andy Beshear and his health commissioner urged more parents to get their children vaccinated and said universal masking in schools will be key to keeping Kentucky’s kids in classrooms.

“I’m telling you, if you open a school this week and you’re not requiring masks, you’re going to infect the whole building in the first two weeks. I mean, it’s going to happen that fast. This virus is like measles,” the most infectious disease known, Commissioner Steven Stack said at a news conference.

“So, folks, I urge you if you’re running a school, require masks when they come back to school after this New Year’s break [and] use the test-to-stay program. Employees, we’re going to keep our regular guidance up that we had before, because if you use test-to-stay plus masks, no kid needs to miss school unless they actually have an infection, and then they shouldn’t be in school because we can’t afford to have Covid(-19) spreading around other folks.”

Beshear said he would ask legislators, who start their annual session Tuesday, to give him back the power to require masks in schools.

“I have or I am asking the General Assembly to return authority to require masking in public schools,” he said in response to a question. “I don’t expect them to do it but I do believe it’s necessary. And I think we’ve seen the pressures at the local levels are just too much for some leaders to do what I think each one knows is necessary and right. But it’s also really unpopular or could be unpopular. I actually think the majority wants it in the community that they’re in. I’m willing to take that hit. I’m willing to be the unpopular guy if it means that my kids and everybody else’s are not only protected in schools, but that they also can stay in school.”

Fewer than 50% of 12-to-17-year-olds and only 17% of 5-to-11-year-olds have received a Covid-19 vaccine, so most of Kentucky’s school-age children aren’t protected from the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Of the 4,111 new cases reported Monday, 20% of them were in people 18 and younger. Since Dec. 30, Kentucky has reported 23,426 new cases, including 6,441 on Dec. 30, the most since the pandemic began. From last Monday to Sunday, Kentucky saw its second highest week of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with 29,955 cases reported in the week ending Jan. 2, surpassed only by the week of Aug. 30.

The share of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus in the past seven days is 20.72%, the highest rate since the start of the pandemic.

Beshear cautioned that these numbers are likely lower than reality, because of delayed holiday reporting and home testing.

“Omicron has not only come to the commonwealth, it has hit us harder in terms of escalation of cases than anything we have seen to date,” Beshear said. He added later, “We are likely to see a further escalation.”

The state’s infection rate is 100.54 daily cases per 100,000 residents. Twenty of the state’s counties have an infection rate above 100 daily cases per 100,000, and all but six of the 120 counties are red on the state infection map, for counties with more than 25 cases per 100,000, the state’s highest category of infection.

Beshear encouraged people who test positive for the virus to do three things: self-isolate, notify their close contacts, and inform their personal health-care provider that they have tested positive.

“If you have Omicron and you don’t isolate, you will infect a ton of people,” said Beshear. Because it is so contagious, he said, it is more likely that you could infect an unvaccinated person or someone with pre-existing conditions — groups that are at higher risk for getting a severe infection or being hospitalized.

Hospital numbers are also going up. Kentucky hospitals reported 1,579 Covid-19 patients on Monday, with 373 of them in intensive care and 205 on mechanical ventilation.

Eight of the state’s 10 hospital-readiness regions are using at least 80% of their intensive-care capacity, with four above 90%. Northern Kentucky is at 100% capacity.

While hospitalizations are not increasing as quickly as cases, Stack said, there is still cause for worry.

“If Omicron reaches a peak that’s half again, or twice as high as the previous peak, there’ll be plenty of people who are sick enough to need hospitalization,” he said. “And unfortunately, it’ll be predominantly unvaccinated folks who have no protection probably against the virus.”

Beshear and Stack urged Kentuckians to get a Covid-19 vaccine, and if they have been vaccinated, to get a booster shot, which experts say is needed for reliable protection from the Omicron variant.

Stack stressed that the vaccines remain the best line of defense against the virus, again pointing out that only one of the three available monoclonal antibodies will work against Omicron, which is making up 80% of cases in Kentucky, and that there is a very limited supply of the two antiviral pills.

“I urge you to get vaccinated. Hands down it is the single most powerful medication tool we have to minimize the harm of this disease,” said Stack.

Beshear said that during December, about five unvaccinated individuals got Covid-19 for every one vaccinated person in Kentucky.

So far, nearly 2.8 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose of a vaccine, or 62% of the total population; 2.4 million are fully vaccinated, or 54% of the total population; and 864,321 Kentuckians have gotten boosted, or 36% of those who have been fully vaccinated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a Covid-19 booster shot for 12-to-15-year-olds and reduced the required wait time for a booster from six to five months after the second shot for anyone 12 and older, USA Today reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still must sign off on the authorization.

The state health department has revised the guidance for the general public in light of the changes presented by the CDC last week allowing for shortened isolation and quarantine under certain circumstances. Click here to review the CDC guidance.

Institutions of higher education may follow the guidance for the public. Health-care facilities (including long-term care) should follow the health care personnel guidance for isolation and quarantine. Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Childhood Education remain unchanged

The state reported 120 more Covid-19 deaths since Dec. 30, bringing Kentucky’s pandemic death toll to 12,234. One of the deaths was a 26-year-old man from Jefferson County.