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Western Ky. health department director says CDC community levels, statistics are misleading

Kentucky Public Health

All but one of the Purchase District Health Department’s five western Kentucky counties are listed as being at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 according to an updated state map released Friday.

Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and McCracken counties are all “in the red,” while Fulton County is listed as green.

PDHD director Kent Koster attributes the counties’ “red” status to a statistical grouping by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track COVID-19 data. The grouping lumps together nine Kentucky counties – including Ballard, Carlisle, Crittenden, Graves, Hickman, Livingston, Lyon, Marshall and McCracken counties – with two Illinois counties –Johnson and Massac.

He says this can make the Community Level ratings – which incorporate COVID admissions at hospitals, the percent of hospital capacity committed to COVID patients and the number of new cases in each county – misleading. He pointed to the fact that some counties in the grouping, such as Hickman County, don’t have hospitals that contribute to COVID admissions data.

The health official says he expects the “red” status of western Kentucky counties to change soon, but he’s not sure when that will happen.

“We're very close to getting out of the red,” Koster said. “It's kind of difficult to really say when we'll be out of the red utilizing on the community level, utilizing the data that the CDC uses.”

He also estimates the number of reported COVID cases to be only a third of the actual amount due to at-home testing.

“These are the number of people that are getting tested, you know, with PCR tests, you know, they actually go into testing sites,” Koster said. “I have no way of gauging how many people have COVID other than looking at the hospital rates.”

The Purchase District Health Department reported 238 active cases of COVID-19 Thursday with nearly 200 of those in McCracken County. Ballard, Carlisle, Fulton and Hickman counties each have 15 or fewer active cases. That’s a slight increase from the previous release at the end of June, which reported 213 new cases.

Two of the other three Purchase Area counties also recently reported new COVID case numbers:

  • The Marshall County Health Department reported an increase in its monthly update, nearly tripling its new case count from May in a release Thursday. The department says 312 cases were reported for June. 
  • Graves County, which borders every PDHD county, is also listed as having a high community level risk. The new case total in Graves dipped from 108 to 79 in the same period.
  • Calloway County has not recently released a new COVID case total, but it’s Community Level rating lowered from high to medium this week.

The updated incidence rate map for the state shows that this week most of Kentucky’s counties were at a “substantial” or “high” rate. In the Purchase Area, Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman, Fulton and Marshall were listed as “substantial” – meaning somewhere between 10 and 25 new average daily cases per 100,000 residents – and Calloway, Graves and McCracken were listed as “high” – meaning more than 25 average new cases daily per 100,000 residents.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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