AP

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear urged churches on Wednesday to cancel worship services this week as part of his recommendation that people avoid large gatherings to help prevent spread of the new coronavirus.

“I don't believe that whether you go to church during this period of time is a test of faith," he said. “I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other and we should do that."

Beshear also said that state prisons are being temporarily closed to visitors, and that non-essential out-of-state travel has been suspended for state employees. He recommended that private businesses do the same.

“All of these are aggressive steps, and we believe that they are necessary steps that will help us to ultimately move through this," Beshear told reporters.

Beshear acknowledged that recommending the cancellation of worship services statewide was a “big step" and one that's likely to draw some pushback. But he sees it as necessary to protect public health.

“We know that this (virus) is community spread and we think it's very important to get ahead of it," the governor said.

People can practice their faith at home this week, he said.

For most people, this coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, but for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 120,000 people have been infected worldwide, with more than 4,300 deaths, but the vast majority recover within weeks. The U.S. tally topped 1,000 cases on Monday, with at least 30 deaths.

Eight cases have been diagnosed in Kentucky. Patients range in age from 27 to 69. All eight are receiving medical care in isolation.

The timing is unfortunate for basketball fans. Kentuckians typically descend in droves on the annual Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, which is scheduled this weekend in Nashville. Beshear said anyone over 60 and anyone in a vulnerable population due to heart, lung or kidney disease should not go and should avoid large crowds.

In other steps, the governor asked school districts to develop plans to allow schools to close on short notice if necessary.

“While we are not there yet, it is very possible that in the future we're going to have to ask schools in Kentucky to close down for a period of time," the governor said.

Schools are closed this week in Harrison County, a rural area in north-central Kentucky where five coronavirus cases have been confirmed. The district turned to a system for students to work from home during bad weather or other situations.

Beshear also urged employers to let employees work from home whenever possible.

At state prisons, inmates will be allowed one free call each per week and up to two contacts through a “controlled social media source" to communicate with family and friends, state justice Secretary Mary Noble said.

The steps announced Wednesday followed other responses by Beshear. On Tuesday, he announced efforts to severely restrict visits to nursing homes. On Monday, he issued an executive order waiving coronavirus-related copays, deductibles, cost-sharing and diagnostic testing fees for most private insurance and for state employees. The state also removed any impediments for Medicaid recipients to be tested and treated, he said.

In Harrison County, the five patients are a 27-year-old woman, a 67-year-old woman, a 68-year-old man, a 60-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman. Two Fayette County patients are a 49-year-old man and a 46-year-old man. A Jefferson County patient is a 69-year-old man.

“The good news is that all eight ... are stable, are doing well, and a couple of these individuals may almost be through this,” Beshear said.

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