As he explained, defended and urged compliance with his order to wear masks to thwart COVID-19, Gov. Andy Beshear had some distressing data to support his case.
Beshear reported that the share of people testing positive for the coronavirus in Kentucky this week was 4.5 percent, a big jump from the 2.47% rate two weeks ago and 2.87% last week. Meanwhile, the rolling seven-day average of new cases is now 334, after seven straight days of increases and six straight days of new records. Those were increases of 82% and 87%, respectively.
"If the numbers were only up because testing was up, then positivity rate would be the same," Beshear said. "It's not a claim, it’s not an argument, it’s a fact, that we are having an increase in COVID cases that is not attributable to more testing."
And yet another record was set Friday: 426 new cases of the virus, the most ever identified on one day. (The state reported 625 cases on May 5, but 309 were from several days of testing at the Green River Correctional Complex in Central City.)
"We're back in an incredibly important crunch time," Beshear said near the end of his second Capitol-rotunda press conference in as many days. The day before, he issued an emergency order requiring Kentuckians to wear face coverings when they can't stay six feet away from each other.
He again pointed to outbreaks in other states that are stressing their health-care systems to the limit. "We could be Arizona, 10 times worse than we have it right now," he said. "I’m not gonna allow that to happen to us . . . This is why we’re acting early, why we’re acting fast."
As he first cited Arizona, the nation's main hotspot, Beshear said, "This could easily be us if we don’t take action, or people frustrate our attempts to take action."
He was alluding to Scott Circuit Judge Brian Privett's Thursday order, supported by Attorney General Daniel Cameron, saying his executive orders must be more specific. Beshear is appealing the order but he said it shouldn't affect his mask order because he also issued an corresponding emergency regulation that hasn't been blocked.
"The attorney general didn’t file a motion to stop the masks, he filed a motion for the judge to think about whether or not it violates" the restraining order, Beshear said. "If the judge wants a hearing, we've got some questions to raise about some undisclosed information that we think should have been available to parties to ensure we were gonna get get a fair hearing." He didn't elaborate.
Beshear is a Democrat and Cameron is a Republican. So are the leaders of the state House and Senate, who joined Cameron in a letter to Beshear Thursday night, saying that he should have consulted with them about the mask order.
“As usual, you have put forth this order by edict rather than through collaboration,” wrote Senate President Robert Stivers, House Speaker David Osborne and Cameron wrote. Beshear is acting under a state law that gives governors broad powers in public-health emergencies.
In a press release Friday, Cameron said his motion “is not about whether or not it is appropriate to wear a mask. It is my belief that masks are an important tool in fighting this pandemic.” Osborne said likewise: “The real issue is that the governor refuses to work with other elected officials to develop public policy that best serves the people of Kentucky and preserves their constitutional and legal rights.”
Asked about that, Beshear said, “We got almost half our General Assembly that when they meet refused to wear masks, and the claim is if I'd only come to them and talked about mask requirements, this would be okay?” Showing a slide about 26 Mississippi legislators testing positive for the virus, he said, "This is what happens when you don’t take it seriously.”
He added, “This isn’t supposed to be about D versus R, or the governor versus the legislative branch. It’s just about doing the right thing for the people of Kentucky.”
Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander, after giving a report on child care, made this plea: "If you want to keep the economy open, wear a mask. If you want to make sure we can have sports in the fall, wear a mask. If you want to protect your loved ones and families, wear a mask."
Daily data: Counties with the most new cases on the state's report Friday were Jefferson, 63, Fayette, 43; Warren, 26; and Graves 20. As he read the list, he stopped at Graves and said he had "some politician" in a nearby county say “I’m not wearing masks, nobody can make me.” He said such people are risking lives, the state's economy and the reopening of its schools.
Fayette County, which has its own reporting schedule and usually differs with the state's numbers for it, said it had 83 new cases Friday. Lexington-Fayette County Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said about 30 percent of the cases were from long-term-care facilities, but "We are also seeing new cases who report going to gyms and restaurants while infectious."
Beshear announced eight more deaths and noted that three of the fatalities were men in their 60s: a 61-year-old in Warren County, a 68-year-old in Clay County and a 69-year-old in Russell County. The others were an 89-year-old man in Grant County, a 78-year-old woman in Warren County, an 88-year-old woman in Fayette County and an 81-year-old woman in Shelby County.
The governor said 20 more residents and 20 more staff in long-term-care facilities had tested positive, with two more deaths. "We’re doing pretty well comparatively at keeping cases down, and a little better than that on the death side," he said.
Unemployment benefits: Beshear said 320 people are working on resolving thousands of claims, and the state hopes to have 80 more at the start of next week, but "Only half the calls that are being made are being answered," so the state is publicizing the number that will show up on a call: 502-333-9130. The number cannot take incoming calls.
"We want to make sure we resolve what has been an under-performance by us," Beshear said. "The thing I need from you: answer the phone." He said many claims can be resolved on the phone, but said unresolved claims from March are "still in the 7,000 range."
In other COVID-19 news Friday:
- Beshear did not report hospitalization numbers Friday, saying the state is changing its reporting system to get more timely and accurate data. He said he hopes to have those data Monday.
- He said the increase in cases “shouldn’t keep you from taking a child to a medical appointment . . . It’s gonna be safe. Your kids are more likely to be harmed by not discovering something else that may be serious.”
- Beshear's Executive Cabinet Secretary, J. Michael Brown, said all 643 inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women have been tested, with 176 positive and 258 still pending. He said the Corrections Cabinet is applying the lessons it learned at the Central City prison, separating positive inmates and increasing sanitary and prevention procedures.
- Brown also reported that inmates in Kentucky Correctional Industries have made 142,000 masks, including 45,000 for state prisons.
- Beshear said he would consider ordering quarantines for people who return to Kentucky from hotspot states, counties or cities.
- "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is emerging as the GOP's mask spokesman, proselytizing about the importance of wearing a face covering during the pandemic," reports Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press. "As the country struggles to bring the virus outbreak under control, Republicans approaching their own reelection prospects alongside Trump in November, including McConnell, know they need to be seen as correct on health issues, showing voters they are leading a way out of the crisis."
- The Gallup Poll found that 86% of Americans wore a mask last week.