Kentucky hospitals cannot sustain current COVID patient levels, governor warns

Published 9:18 pm Thursday, September 23, 2021

While Kentucky’s prolonged surge of COVID-19 cases has shown signs of leveling off, overstressed hospitals can’t sustain the current pace of seriously ill virus patients, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday as he pleaded with people to take preventive steps.

The governor — who had much of his pandemic-fighting authority taken away by lawmakers — stressed that the more Kentuckians who get vaccinated and wear masks when indoors in public, the “faster we can get this thing on the way down.”

“We are hoping that, in the very least, we are plateauing in terms of new cases,” Beshear said in offering a ray of optimism amid a period that turned into the state’s worst COVID-19 escalation. “Certainly our hope is that we will start to see a decrease.”

But Kentucky remains in a “very dangerous situation,” he warned, as the highly contagious delta variant makes younger Kentuckians sicker and as hospital intensive care units are still inundated with virus patients, many on ventilators.

“If we plateau at the level we’re at right now, we cannot sustain it in our hospitals,” the governor said. “It is too much, with too many people sick.”

On Thursday, Beshear reported 4,099 new COVID-19 cases and 44 more virus-related deaths.

Two-thirds of Kentucky’s hospitals continue to deal with critical staffing shortages, he said. Meanwhile, most coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated people. Kentucky recently reached another vaccination milestone with 70% of Kentuckians eligible to receive COVID-19 shots having received at least one dose.

Some prominent Senate Republicans have urged the Democratic governor to call lawmakers back for another special legislative session to funnel aid to hospitals struggling to overcome those chronic staffing shortages.

Nancy Galvagni, president of the Kentucky Hospital Association, told a legislative panel on Wednesday that hospitals are paying significantly more to retain and recruit health care workers to try to keep up with the virus-related demand.

“Our hospitals tell me that they cannot sustain the amounts they’re having to pay for staffing,” she said.

Kentucky’s hospitals lost about $1 billion last year due to increased pandemic costs, despite receiving federal assistance, Galvagni said. Hospitals are looking to the state government for help, she said, noting that several other states have used a portion of their federal pandemic aid to help their hospitals overcome staffing shortages.

“Resources are strained, and hospitals large and small … are all saying that they need help,” she said.

Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado urged the governor to call lawmakers into a special session to tackle the staffing issue, saying: “The longer we wait, the worse this problem is going to get.”

“Because this isn’t the last surge for COVID-19,” he said.

If necessary, lawmakers could redirect previously appropriated funds to assist hospitals, he said.

Beshear responded Thursday that lawmakers haven’t offered a plan on where the money would come from or specifics about how the aid program would work. Before he called a previous pandemic-related special session this month, he had multiple meetings with legislative leaders and proposals were exchanged, Beshear said. Such consensus-building is typical before a special session, but none of that has occurred for a session to assist hospitals, he said.

“I think a lot of this is about being unwilling to truly do what it would take — and it wouldn’t cost us a dime — to alleviate this crisis in hospitals,” the governor said. “And that’s require masking. Masking has flattened the curve every single surge we’ve had, and when I had the power to do it, we prevented our hospitals from being overrun.”

Beshear lost much of his authority to unilaterally combat the pandemic when the GOP-led legislature limited the governor’s emergency powers. The state Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s actions, and lawmakers set pandemic policies in the recent special session. They scrapped the statewide school mask mandate and put a ban on any statewide mask rules until June 2023.

The governor on Thursday touted efforts by his administration to assist overburdened hospitals. That includes deploying more than 500 Kentucky National Guard members to 29 Kentucky hospitals.