At the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green, Kentucky, vendors and shoppers are adjusting to the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes wearing face coverings, maintaining distance, and taking other precautions to avoid spreading the virus.
Market manager Susan Warrell said their first days under the state’s recent mask mandate were a challenge, but shoppers have been understanding.
“We had just a couple of people that came without masks. And I just stopped them and explained,” she said. “And they put the mask on and shopped at the market.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s order to mandate masks in public places is one of the latest moves around the Ohio Valley to reverse the recent trend of rising case numbers after the states started to reopen economic activity.
Warrell says she understands that public health orders have been politically divisive. But she’s prepared to enforce them for the sake of the local farmers and local food supply.
“We need to do what we need to do to stay open. We need to keep farmers farming. We need to keep local food available for our customers,” she said.
Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have seen a surge in cases in July, bringing the daily numbers of confirmed cases to all-time highs in the region.
This has led to some grim milestones for these states that had avoided the worst of the pandemic until recently: Kentucky has now passed 20,000 total COVID-19 cases; Ohio has topped 3,000 total deaths; and on Friday West Virginia reached its 100th fatality.
The mounting toll has public health officials and community leaders rethinking what reopening the Ohio Valley looks like, and what can be done to reverse the rising numbers.
By The Numbers
On Sunday Kentucky announced its highest single-day total of coronavirus cases, with 979 new positive test results. Both Ohio and West Virginia also recently posted their highest single-day totals. The Ohio Valley ReSource’s COVID Data Tracker includes a 7-day average trend line to add context to the daily reports of coronavirus cases around the region.
While daily cases fluctuate greatly, the 7-day average of daily cases is a good indicator of how things are trending in a state, and for the Ohio Valley region that trend through July has been steadily upward.
Kentucky’s 7-day average of cases has grown from under 200 in mid-June to more than 450 by mid-July. In Ohio the 7-day average was roughly 500 in mid-June; by mid-July it was 1,370. Before July, West Virginia’s 7-day average was never above 50. By July 18th it had more than doubled.
As of July 15 Kentucky and West Virginia were among nine states in the country with the fastest growth in cases, according to data tracked by the New York Times.
The surge in positive cases is not, as some have claimed, merely a result of additional coronavirus testing.
The rate of positive test results on July 18 stood at about 6% in both Kentucky and Ohio, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And while those states have increased the number of tests, the growth in the rate of new cases outpaces the growth in testing.
The situation in the Ohio Valley is not as dire as that in large parts of the southeast and southwest, where 18 states were in the “red zone” of uncontrolled spread of the virus as of July 18.
However, the recent surge in cases in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia is sufficiently alarming to lead the governors and health officials in the three states to issue new mandates on masks and some restrictions on public gatherings and business activities.
“We have failed”
Dr. Gerald Keusch directs the Collaborative Research Core at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory.
In a remarkably blunt interview with the Ohio Valley ReSource, Keusch pointed to failures in political leadership that have contributed to the rise in cases nationally and created a polarized atmosphere that makes it harder to contain the pandemic.
“We have failed, at the highest levels of this government, to impose a common message. We have diminished the reliability of information and we’ve empowered people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, like academic advisers to the president, to capture the agenda,” Keusch said, referring to a recent opinion piece in USA Today, in which White House economic advisor Peter Navarro made false attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. USA Today’s editorial page editor later said Navarro’s piece “did not meet USA Today’s fact-checking standards.”
“That was the most unintelligent stream of consciousness that I have ever witnessed,” Keusch said of Paul’s performance.
The result of all this rhetoric, Keusch said, is mixed messages on the pandemic that make it difficult for public health officials to get a handle on surging cases. Now, he warned, that threatens to delay or derail altogether attempts to send children back to school this fall.
“There is no firm yes or no when it comes to school reopening,” Keusch said. “It’s all about, ‘Can you do it right?’’
He cited a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on the importance of in-person learning for the youngest students. Keusch recommends an approach that prioritizes young children and those with disabilities and special needs, because virtual learning may be more difficult for them.
“In part, it’s a matter of resources,” he said. “It’s also a matter of rational thinking, and resolve.”
One of the best tools right now to lower case numbers and work toward normalcy is mask wearing. Information about how exactly masks slow the spread of coronavirus was limited when the pandemic began. But Keusch says now the science is clear.
“It protects you and it protects others,” he said. “And there’s a moral responsibility to your community to do this one thing.”
“Time to get control”
The implementation of mask mandates has been a patchwork across the Ohio Valley.
West Virginia was the first to issue a face covering order on July 6. But Republican Gov. Jim Justice said the state will leave enforcement up to businesses.
Kentucky followed with its order on July 9. Democratic Gov. Beshear said the 30-day order would be enforced by local health departments.
Kentucky’s Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, has challenged Beshear’s emergency orders on coronavirus health measures as unconstitutional, and won a circuit court ruling that would have stopped the mask mandate. On Friday, the Kentucky Supreme Court pre-empted that ruling, meaning the mask order will remain in effect at least until the high court can hear the case.
Beshear predicted he will prevail, and called Cameron’s challenge “dangerous.”
“I’m just going to do the right thing,” he said. “If they won’t, that’s okay, I’ll do it for them.”
In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine ordered mask use state-wide on July 22. Until then he had left mask mandates up to local governments and business, with certain exceptions for counties with high rates of spread and exposure. The state has a Public Health Advisory System with a set of measures that alert local governments to the potential need for new measures to limit the spread of the virus.
And some city governments have taken action.
The city council in Athens, Ohio, on July 13 approved a face covering ordinance that applies to public spaces and where social distancing is not possible.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson says the ordinance — which includes a $100 penalty for non-compliance — is necessary.
“I knew since we had gone for roughly six weeks with only three cases, and then it started creeping up, I kept thinking, something needs to be done,” he said.
Athens County had 250 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday with most coming in just the past two weeks. In the first two weeks of July the small, mostly rural county of just about 66,000 people had more confirmed COVID-19 cases than it had during the rest of the pandemic combined.
It’s one of the highest rates of spread per capita in Ohio, largely driven by cases among people under the age of 29
And shortly after the Athens ordinance, Athens County was upgraded to Level 3 on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System.
Gov. DeWine mandated that any county at Level 3 has a high risk of spread and exposure to coronavirus, and will be under a mandatory mask order.
In a press briefing Thursday, DeWine said he was concerned because the county is at risk of reaching Level 4. And the virus is spreading there in July, just a few weeks before Ohio University students are scheduled to return, doubling the Athens City population.
“Now it’s time for us to get control of that,” DeWine said. “It’s time to get control of the situation because you’re going to have tens of thousands of students coming back in the fall.”
This story was updated on Wednesday, July 22, to include information on Ohio’s mask mandate.
ReSource staff Sydney Boles, Becca Schimmel and Jeff Young and WOUB’s Tom Hodson contributed to this story. Alexandra Kanik developed the ReSource COVID Data Tracker.