“The legislature owns this pandemic moving forward” because it banned statewide mask mandates, Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday as COVID-19 hospitalizations set more records and the death toll passed 8,000.
Beshear called a press conference to give his reactions to the special legislative session he called to fill the void left by the court decision upholding laws the General Assembly passed to limit his emergency powers.
“For 18 months I’ve been able to quarterback Kentucky through this pandemic,” he said. “I’ve made the tough calls, sometimes the unpopular calls, and I’ve taken the hits that go along with them … but the legislature wanted that ball … so the legislature owns this pandemic moving forward. If I still had the authority, we’d be masking indoors. It works. We’d reduce cases, we’d provide relief to our hospitals, we’d save lives. The inability to take this step, and all its ramifications, or even its devastation, falls squarely on the legislature.”
Beshear imposed a mask mandate in July 2020, during a surge in cases. It remained in effect until June 2021.
“It’s worked to stop every single surge we’ve faced,” he said. “It is proven, and it is the second best tool behind vaccines and now I can’t use it. So the General Assembly has to own that piece.”
He said “strong, centralized leadership” is needed in pandemics, and “We’ve had better success than most states; without it, right now we’re suffering more than just about any other state.”
Beshear has been in charge during the current national surge, during which Kentucky’s infection rate rose to the top five among the states. He lifted the mask mandate about two and a half weeks before the current surge began, driven by the Delta variant of the virus.
Maintaining his football analogy, Beshear said, “The legislature asked to go in at QB, and what did they do? They punted on first down. … Instead of making a call setting a matrix, saying when we would need to mask in schools, they now push it to local superintendents and local school boards.”
Only a third of school districts had imposed mask mandates by Aug. 10, when Beshear issued a statewide school mask mandate. The state school board soon issued one that was limited to public schools. The legislature banned such mandates until June 1, 2023, making the decision a local one.
“My message to local school districts is there’s only one decision, only one right answer, where you don’t endanger children and your entire community,” Beshear said. “If you don’t have universal masking in your school system, your kids won’t be in school, because Covid will spread too much. It’s happened in every school system that’s tried to get by without it.”
Republicans who control the legislature, and a few Democratic lawmakers, have said they trust local school officials to make the right decisions. To that, Beshear said, “All over the country school systems have chosen not to do the right thing … Either our school systems follow the science, and do universal masking, or they endanger our children.”
Beshear said later, “The two most effective tools in fighting COVID-19 are vaccines and masks, and now we, I, have to proceed forward with one arm, one of those tools, tied behind my back. . . . Our path ahead is going to be more difficult but we will continue to rise to the challenges, to do the very best that we can, and to call on others to make good decisions.”
The governor said a 19 year-old from Daviess County was on Friday’s list of 32 deaths, which pushed the toll of the pandemic in Kentucky to 8,003.
Kentucky hospitals reported a record 2,541 COVID-19 patients, 62 more than Thursday, with 698 in intensive care and 448 on mechanical ventilation, both records.
“Our hospitals are at a breaking point,” Beshear said, adding that only 93 intensive-care beds are available, “despite hospitals opening up more and more and more of them every day.”
Some Republicans blamed hospital staffing shortages on Beshear’s ban on elective procedures early in the pandemic, which they said prompted staff to leave for other jobs and started a sellers’ market for hospital staff. Beshear said every state stopped elective procedures, at the behest of then-President Trump.
The state reported 5,197 new coronavirus cases, the fifth largest daily total of the pandemic. Thursday’s 5,252 figure was the fourth largest. The seven-day rolling average of new cases is 3,989; the record of 4,398 was set Sunday.
The state’s seven-day rate of new cases, which had dropped for five days in a row, rose slightly, to 81.57 cases per 100,000 residents. Counties with rates more than double that rate were Perry, 208.5; Clay, 205.3; and Whitley, 194.6. Perry County retained the nation’s highest infection rate, according to The New York Times, which ranks Kentucky’s rate third, behind Tennessee and South Carolina.
The state Department of Education said it would pay local school districts $100 for each employee who gets vaccinated against the virus, to encourage them to offer the incentive to the employees.
Asked if he were considering other incentives, Beshear said the remaining unvaccinated population is so resistant to getting a jab that they are likely to be persuaded only by someone who “loves them so much they are willing to lose that relationship if that means protecting that person. … We need everybody’s direct help.”
Beshear had a parting shot for legislators who faulted him for not consulting with them about decisions related to the pandemic, noting the expiration date of the ban on statewide mask mandates.
“When your masking option runs out right after the primary for governor, going into the general [election], can we also admit there’s a lot of politics being played here by the body? And then maybe that some of these comments going back in time have been political, too? I mean, listen: I threw politics out the window a long time ago.”
Beshear has said he will run for re-election in 2023.