Kentucky governor says crushing COVID surge has state in ‘uncharted territory’

Published 9:45 pm Thursday, August 26, 2021

Kentucky’s governor said Thursday that the latest wave of grim COVID-19 statistics would have triggered a statewide mask mandate indoors if he still wielded the authority to take such action.

But the Kentucky Supreme Court recently shifted pandemic-related decisions on masking and other issues to the Republican-dominated legislature, Gov. Andy Beshear said. So the Democratic governor used his bully pulpit to continue urging people to mask up when indoors, away from home.

The Bluegrass State has reached “uncharted territory” with the prolonged escalation of virus infections, hospitalizations and patients in intensive care, he said at a news conference.

On Wednesday, Kentucky reported 65 virus-related deaths. It also notched its third-highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases as the highly contagious delta variant overwhelms many hospitals.

“That would have been the trigger for me, if it was in my authority to put in a masking order for indoors across the state,” Beshear said of the statistics. “Every other time we’ve been this high, we’ve done that and it’s worked. It has decreased the number of cases.”

“I can’t do that now, and I get that,” the governor added. “And I’ll provide all the information that I can to the General Assembly and hopefully they will make the best choice that they can.”

Later Thursday, Beshear reported new record highs in Kentucky with 2,115 virus patients hospitalized, including 590 in intensive care and 345 on ventilators. The state suffered 27 more virus-related deaths and had 5,401 new COVID-19 cases, its second-highest daily total of the pandemic.

The escalation caused more than 10,000 COVID-19 infections reported statewide in the past two days, and 4,600 children tested positive for the virus in the last three days, he said.

As the surge worsens, Beshear has had discussions with legislative leaders as he weighs whether to convene lawmakers for a special session to deal with COVID-19 issues.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said this week that a blanket masking mandate would stand a “very limited chance” with lawmakers.

The state’s Supreme Court on Saturday gave lawmakers the upper hand when it cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus-related restrictions previously. The justices said a lower court wrongly blocked the GOP-backed measures.

Now, various emergency measures previously issued by Beshear are set to expire as a result of the landmark court decision. It’s up to lawmakers to decide whether to keep them in place.

“Right now, they have in hand a whole list of different things that we need — things like workers’ compensation for our front-line workers if they get COVID,” the governor said Thursday. “My goodness, we’ve got to provide that. Things like recognizing doctors licensed in other states, so that we can help increase our health care capacity. And they’re taking a close look at it.”

Stivers has said GOP lawmakers are ready to present their plan if reconvened by the governor, saying they’ve been “formulating for quite some time things that we think would be effective.”

More than 30 Kentucky hospitals are reporting critical staffing shortages, Beshear said. Smaller hospitals are struggling to care for much sicker patients than they normally treat.

“As horrible as last year’s surge was, and it was awful, we were never in a position where doctors worried they’d need to choose between treating a patient who can’t breathe because of COVID, or treat a patient who’s bleeding out because of a car accident,” the governor said. “But that is the strain that our hospitals are under.”

Dr. Dennis Beck, interim chief administrative officer at Deaconess Henderson Hospital, said patients are “dying without need” as he urged people to get vaccinated.

“The crisis is real,” he said in a video. “Our patient volumes are higher than they ever have been in any summertime period in the history of our hospital and our health system.”

Beshear has increasingly turned to doctors and nurses across Kentucky to try to persuade the unvaccinated to take the shots. Mohan Rao, a general surgeon at Baptist Health Madisonville, said he thought last year’s COVID-19 surges would be the worst of it due to the introduction of vaccines. But he said the virus has now “come back with a vengeance.”

“As somebody who believes in individual liberties, which I do, I’m vaccinated,” he said in another video shown Thursday. “And I did that for the protection of myself, for the protection of my family and for the protection of my patients.”