After a month of shuttered businesses, cancelled events, social distancing, and staying at home, state officials say the restrictions meant to avoid a sharp spike in cases of the highly infectious coronavirus are working.
“We have undeniably flattened the curve and we have delayed the surge,” says Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack.
As of Monday, the commonwealth surpassed more than 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. A total of 104 Kentuckians have died from the virus or its complications. Still, Dr. Stack says the commonwealth has performed better than many other states in terms of limiting the number of coronavirus cases so that hospitals and health care providers aren’t pushed beyond capacity.
Based on his review of multiple epidemiological models, Dr. Stack says the peak number of cases in Kentucky likely won’t hit until late April or early May. That’s why he says it’s important that people continue to abide by the measures taken by Gov. Andy Beshear, which are meant to prevent the spread of the disease and protect those most at risk, including the elderly and the medically vulnerable.
But Americans are getting mixed messages: Public health officials want the restrictions to continue, while President Donald Trump wants to get the nation back to work as soon as is feasible.
“We can’t stop yet, but we are well aware of the need to figure out what that exist strategy is,” says Dr. Stack. “But we have to get the personal protective equipment and the testing to where it needs to be.”
Maintaining adequate supplies of PPEs for health care workers remains a challenge in the commonwealth, according to Gov. Beshear. As for testing, the governor says more than 26,000 Kentuckians have been tested so far out of a population of 4.4 million people. The state in partnership with Kroger launched free, drive-though testing in Frankfort on Monday, with plans to open additional sties statewide to test up to 20,000 people over the next five weeks. Stack says the test is meant for people with active symptoms of the virus and those who are health care personnel, first responders, 65 and older, or who have serious health problems.
Other places are offering testing, but Dr. Stack warns Kentuckians to avoid any sites that demand money for a test.
“If you’re not getting it from a doctor, or a hospital, or a clinic, where you can go and use your insurance and get tested that way, you should not be handing over your cash for these things,” says the commissioner. “You’re probably wasting your money.”
Dr. Stack and the governor have struggled with how to address people who resist orders to avoid mass gatherings like church services. At a briefing on Sunday, Dr. Stack asked if a person’s right to gather also entitles them to put others at risk of death resulting from a coronavirus infection.
“I say these things, not in a mean or a spiteful way, but as an attempt to try to frame what really the question is we’re dealing with here,” he says. “We’re dealing with difficult and very unacceptable economic consequences and other things, trying to keep people safe and trying to prevent deaths that don’t need to occur.”
Of the 2,048 confirmed cases in Kentucky as of Monday, Dr. Stack says at least 629 people have recovered from the coronavirus. Even after symptoms subside, he still recommends that people wear facemasks for a few additional days as a precaution against spreading any remnants of the virus to others.
Evaluating Gov. Beshear’s Response
Gov. Beshear has received generally positive reviews for his handling of the crisis. His daily updates have become a fixture for many Kentuckians stuck at home during the shut down.
“He’s been a rock star,” Senate Minority Caucus Chair Johnny Ray Turner (D-Prestonsburg) says of the new governor. “He’s been here now four months and he’s been faced with having to deal with a budget, he’s been having to deal with the pandemic, and I think he’s done an excellent job.”
But Beshear has also drawn sharp criticism for his response to churches that have continued to hold in-person services despite an executive order prohibiting mass gatherings. Late last week the governor sent state police officers to record the license plate numbers of people attending these services. Then local health departments issued 14-day quarantine orders to those individuals.
“I think the governor has done a solid job up until this weekend, I think, when he probably overstepped his authority,” says Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown). “I think it will have political and probably legal consequences for him.”
Thayer says he takes seriously the threats posed by COVID-19, but he also worries about the economic impact and “authoritarian government policies” that have followed. He says he appreciates Beshear’s commitment to public health and safety, but he says the governor should now start sharing his plans to reopen businesses large and small.
A good place to start, according to Thayer, would be for the governor to rescind the ban on hospitals doing elective procedures. He says hospitals are losing $20 million a day without these operations, which he says greatly impacts their ability to cover their fixed costs.
“Their main cash flow comes from these elective procedures, which they haven’t been able to do for a month,” says Thayer. “We have rural hospitals in Kentucky that are closing down and that’s a critical part of the economy that we can’t ignore.”
The senator says the Kentucky Hospital Association has a plan to restore elective procedures that it will present to Beshear.
House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) says he is concerned about the physical and mental health of Kentuckians during an extended shutdown. As leaders look to jump-starting the economy, Osborne says they should move beyond what are essential and non-essential businesses to look instead at what businesses can be reopened safely.
“If there are businesses out there, if there are employers out there that can comply with CDC guidelines, that can operate in a very safe manner that doesn’t put anybody at risk, then I think that we have to start looking at giving them that flexibility to do so,” says Osborne.
The speaker says lawmakers won’t undo Beshear’s executive orders on business closings, but he says they will encourage a revaluation of those orders.
Whitesburg Democrat Angie Hatton, the House Minority Whip, says Kentucky is having better health outcomes during the pandemic because of how Beshear has handled the crisis.
“He is completely focused on saving lives,” says Hatton. “I don’t think he’s going to start giving us false hopes about coming out of this crisis that no one wants to continue until he’s had indication from CDC that it’s time.”
As for allowing hospitals to restart elective procedures, Hatton says that’s not something the governor should rush into without proper scientific guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prospects for Veto Overrides
Amid the crisis, lawmakers returned to Frankfort on Tuesday to consider last-minute legislation and overrides of gubernatorial vetoes. Osborne says leaders had planned to meet for three days this week, but then scaled backed to two days based on the workload awaiting them.
While Beshear did not veto any specific appropriations in the one-year budget passed by legislators on April 1, he did veto some language that he contends would limit his ability to respond to the pandemic in the coming months.
As of Monday night, Osborne says he had not had a chance to fully review the vetoes or speak with Beshear about them. He says the budget was crafted with input from the governor’s office.
“[We’re] certainly open to understanding why he had concerns about it and will do whatever we can to address those concerns, and at the same time maintain the integrity of the document,” says Osborne.
Hatton says she agrees with Osborne that legislators should defend their budget, but she also says they must consider the governor’s concerns.
“If there were things that were rushed and the language became restrictive and beyond the intention, I think that we definitely need to look at it,” says Hatton. “We don’t want to tie our governor’s hands at a time like this.”
Turner says he probably agrees with some of Beshear’s vetoes. Even while he defends the overall spending plan, Turner says there could be unforeseen consequences to some of the budget language.
“Under the extreme circumstances that we had and the uncertainty, I think that the legislature did an outstanding job,” says Turner, “and I think it was a good decision to do a one-year budget.”
The governor issued vetoes for all or parts of several other bills. Osborne says he expect lawmakers to consider overriding vetoes to Senate Bill 2 to require voters to present photo identification at the polls, Senate Bill 5 on taxes levied by special purpose governmental entities, House Bill 150 on interpretation of law regarding liability insurance, House Bill 195 on the publication of government legal postings, and House Bill 336 regarding the timing of a gubernatorial candidate’s selection of a running mate.
Veto overrides require 51 votes in the House and 20 votes in the Senate.
In rejecting SB 2, Beshear said he does not want to disenfranchise anyone. The measure would require voters to present a government-issued photos ID to be able to vote, starting with the November general election. Those without proper identification would either have to sign an affidavit explaining why they could not secure a photo ID or be personally identified by a poll worker. Critics of the measure contend it could adversely impact elderly and minority voters.
Beshear is also concerned that the government offices that will issue photo IDs to Kentuckians who don’t have such identification may still be closed in the summer or fall.
“I do believe that those institutions will be reopened by the November elections, so I think people will have plenty of time by then,” says Osborne.
The House Speaker admits that in-person voter fraud is a small problem, but he says the overall integrity of elections is worth protecting. Thayer agrees.
“I think there were six [state] House elections in 2018 decided by single-digit votes,” says Thayer. “I want to make sure that the people coming to vote in every election are who they say they are.”
Hatton describes SB 2 as “a solution in search of a problem” since there have been no confirmed cases of voter impersonation in the state. She says people are worried about election fraud, but not the type that this bill would address.
“We know that there’s voter fraud, and that it’s electronic and it’s meddling from other countries and things like that,” says Hatton.
As for other lingering bills, Osborne says he expects to House to approve Senate Bill 15, the proposed constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law to create a crime victims’ bill of rights. He says lawmakers may also consider additional coronavirus-related relief measures in the final two days of the session.
Thayer says the Senate is considering a constitutional amendment to align and lengthen the terms of office for district and circuit court judges. He also says there’s still time to pass additional pro-life measures.
The Senate has until midnight Wednesday to confirm gubernatorial appointments to various state boards, including the Kentucky Board of Education. Thayer criticizes Beshear for installing all new members of that panel back in December. He says the governor failed to pick members that represent proper political, geographic, gender, and racial balance.
State law doesn’t currently require governors to appoint KBE members based on those factors. Thayer says legislators will eventually change the law to mandate that.