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COVID-19 case counts rise across Ky. as students go back to school


As students of all ages across Kentucky go back to school, COVID-19 case counts are on the rise.

The latest data released by Kentucky Public Health indicated over 5,400 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in the state last week. That’s the biggest new weekly case total in the Bluegrass State since February.

Dr. Steven Stack, the state’s commissioner for public health, said the numbers don’t compare with the peaks of the pandemic, but they are still cause for public concern.

“We're not seeing a massive or substantial escalation in hospitalizations. So there is some increase, but we always have an increase in hospitalizations in the fall and in the winter with respiratory diseases,” Stack said. “It's still important, and people need to take the steps we’ve said all along.”

During this spike in cases – which comes just as Kentucky’s school year is getting underway – young children age 4 and under have been particularly susceptible. A pair of Kentucky school districts – in Lee and Magoffin counties – have already canceled in-person learning for multiple days this school year due to a rise in illnesses, including COVID-19 cases

“When kids come back to school in grade school, preschool, middle school, high school and college, they're very, very social and they come together in classrooms and spend a lot of time together in confined spaces and diseases spread,” Stack said.

A new COVID-19 variant – known as EG.5 or the “Eris” variant – recently became the most prevalent among Kentucky’s diagnoses. The variant is a descendant of the omicron strain of COVID-19, according to scientists with Yale Medicine.

“There's a lot of variants. The vast majority of them don't really meaningfully impact our world or our life differently than the variants that preceded them. Every now and then a really bad one comes along,” Stack said. “The reason this new one is of concern is because the spike protein – the part that the antibodies in our system respond to – it has numerous mutations in it. So the concern is: Could our immune systems be less effective at protecting us?”

Another new variant – identified as Pirola – is also gaining ground. It’s been detected in more than 10 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., since it was first spotted in mid-August.

A graph showing the weekly COVID-19 case count in Kentucky in 2023, through late August.
Kentucky Public Health
A graph showing the weekly COVID-19 case count in Kentucky in 2023, through late August.

Since March 2020, nearly 1.8 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Kentucky and more than 19,000 Kentuckians have lost their lives to the disease. The pace of infection has slowed down in the state, but 2023 has – in Stack’s eyes – proved COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

“Specific locations will make their specific decisions based on what they need to do in their setting,” the public health official said. “This is the world we live in at this point … this is just something we have to evolve and adapt with.”

The year-to-date numbers for COVID-19 in Kentucky show that nearly 100,000 cases have been positively identified through Aug. 26, 2023. In that time, 842 deaths in the state have been linked to the novel coronavirus.

“This will be our fourth winter with COVID. This is the life that is normal now. Now we have COVID, on top of [RSV and influenza] … so now it won't have to be a severe year for one of these. It could just be a moderate year for all three of them, and it's going to make it hard in hospitals because it'd be a lot more sick people,” Stack said. “So the general public needs to just (1) accept that we moved on [and that] this is our life, this is where we are, and (2) that we can do the activities we want to. We really can. We're pretty much back to doing whatever we want to whenever we want to, but there's consequences.”

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 include regular handwashing, the use of KN-95 or other protective face masks, staying home when sick and receiving a vaccine and booster shot to guard against the disease. State data shows more than 3 million Kentuckians have received at least one dose and over 2.6 million of the state’s residents are fully inoculated.

A new COVID-19 vaccine is anticipated to be approved in September, but Stack said the rollout for it won’t be the same as it was at the peak of the pandemic. Instead of the federal government purchasing vaccine doses for public distribution, the vaccine will be available commercially.

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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