Is another major wave of COVID-19 coming to Kentucky?
Possibly, say some local health professionals who have been watching a gradual increase in new cases. The upturn follows a sharp decrease in cases that came on the heels of a summer surge driven by the delta variant.
“I think … if you look at the entire country, we’re clearly seeing another wave,” said Dr. Jon Klein, vice-dean for research at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
“If you look at the places that are surging, I find it hard to find evidence that we are an exception,” said Klein, a member of a local COVID-19 task force of health officials. “We just have too many people who are unvaccinated.”
In Europe and in parts of the United States, cases again are surging, causing a strain on health systems, Klein said.
But Klein said it’s hard to predict how severe another surge of COVID-19 cases might be in Kentucky, given that more people are vaccinated or may have immunity from having had the virus.
“We don’t know what the combined effect of infection and vaccination is going to be,” he said.
New infections and the rate of positive case of COVID-19 have been edging up for a few weeks after a decline in mid-October.
On Monday, Kentucky reported 44 new deaths 822 new cases — the highest Monday in four weeks. Saturday and Sunday — with 2,048 and 1,018 new cases, respectively — were also the worst Saturday and Sunday in a month.
The COVID-19 increase isn’t good, Gov. Andy Beshear said, but “we don’t necessarily think there’s cause for alarm” yet.
It’s unclear, he said, if this increase will level out as a new plateau or a “bouncing ball.”
“So, we’re gonna have to watch this very, very closely,” he said. “Our testing has been fairly steady. So, something real is happening.”
Over the next two to three weeks, if we continue to see an increase, “then we’ll know where we’re possibly in another increase,” he said. “But again, we have the tools to stop it,” referring to vaccines and booster shots.
The state’s rate of positive cases, after weeks of higher numbers, on Oct. 31 dropped to 4.98%, the lowest since mid-July. But it is climbing, reaching 6.56% on Monday.
At his news conference last week, Beshear also noted the rate of new cases of COVID-19 is increasing among people who are vaccinated, which he said underscores the need for people get booster shots.
“Waning immunity is real,” Beshear said. “We are seeing more people who have been vaccinated in the hospital.”
Last month, about 8% of those hospitalized in Kentucky with COVID-19 between March 1 and Oct. 20 were vaccinated. Last week, that percentage had increased to about 16%, Beshear said.
Booster shots are now available to anyone 18 or older six months after the last dose of the two-shot Moderna or Pfizer vaccines and two months after the single-shot dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Dr. Peter Hasselbacher, a retired physician and U of L medical professor, said he’s concerned that cases of COVID-19 have begun to rise after appearing to have leveled off.
“It’s been going up progressively,” said Hasselbacher, who publishes periodic reports about COVID-19 in Kentucky on his blog Kentucky Health Policy Institute. “We’re expanding sort of slowly. It can get worse fast.”
Hasselbacher worries that with Thanksgiving and other holidays approaching, with more people traveling and attending gatherings, COVID-19 cases could again surge in Kentucky.
“I’m hoping for the best, but I think we should prepare for the worst,” he said.
Kentucky continues to increase vaccinations, and health officials believe the recent expansion of the vaccine to those ages 5-11 will help.
Beshear said 59% of Kentuckians have received at least one dose of vaccine, and among those 18 or older, 71% are vaccinated. More than 504,000 people have received booster shots in the commonwealth, he said.
But Hasselbacher said there are still too many Kentuckians unvaccinated, which will allow the virus to continue to circulate and possibly mutate into yet another form.
Klein said it’s possible a new variant worse than the current, highly contagious delta strain of the virus could develop.
“As long as we have people who are unvaccinated and getting infected, we run the risk for more variants,” he said. “The way we can all work together is if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated.”
And if eligible, he said, “go ahead and get your booster.”