FRANKFORT, Ky. – Republican legislators kept up their questioning of the state's coronavirus data Thursday, and the state health commissioner and Democratic lawmakers pushed back.
Sen. Danny Carroll of Paducah, co-chair of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, was the leading questioner and most outspoken legislator, just as he was at the panel's Aug. 13 meeting, when the committee heard from Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Department for Public Health, and Doug Thoroughman, the state's acting chief epidemiologist.
Carroll kept relying Thursday on Thoroughman's tacit acknowledgement, in response to a Carroll question last month, that the positive-test rate that the state reports daily is not accurate, because of imperfect state and federal reporting systems. Thoroughman also said that the rate is useful for comparison over time because its method of calculation remains the same.
Thursday, Carroll noted that some test results have been delayed for weeks, and asked, "How can we have faith in daily numbers?" He said Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear never includes a disclaimer when giving the figure.
Stack replied that while the data is "imperfect," it is "incredibly valuable. He noted that the state's daily report has an asterisk leading to a long footnote explaining how the rate is calculated.
He noted that the rate is an average over the previous seven days, and “I believe it becomes a very useful and accurate measure” for seeing trends. He said his department has undertaken "an unprecedented process" to get enough data for rates for about 80 counties.
Carroll replied, "The public sees the governor on TV talking about cases and positive rate" that changes from day to day . . . There is a stress that is put on our people as a result of these numbers." He quoted Thoroughman as saying that the numbers are not accurate, and said. "From an ethical standpoint, I struggle with the comfort level of putting this information out on a daily basis."
Stack replied, "I’m sorry you have such low confidence . . . " and Carroll interjected, "It’s not me. I hear it from my constituents daily. They’re mad about this."
Stack said he hears from others who are grateful for the information, and "It's possible for people to reach different conclusions from same information."
He added, "I don’t feel my ethics are compromised or challenged. . . . The metrics we use and the way we create them are consistent with the state of the art as best as public-health professionals can do it." He said President Trump uses weekly data on positive tests, and told Carroll, "Your concern might be that the president of the United States is misleading the public."
At another point, Carroll noted that the committee had also asked to hear again from Thoroughman, and asked why he wasn't present. Stack replied, "I’ve got him doing a lot of other work and I’m the commissioner," the person ultimately responsible for answering questions about the department.
Carroll said that was "disappointing . . . were it not for Dr. Thoroughman, I’m not sure we would know now that our positivity rates were off."
He said of the state's reporting, "It’s being used to manipulate our people, to make our people scared, to control our people. It’s not accurate and its portrayed as being accurate."
Earlier, Democratic Sen. Karen Berg of Louisville, a physician, complimented state health officials' work and said, “They need us to understand it and trust it” so legislators can tell constituents “We have got our best minds working on it . . . It will never be perfect. . . . My constituents have different reactions from Senator Carroll’s. . . . Our responsibility is to get on board and let’s do the best we can.”
A moderate voice: Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, said health-care providers “deserve more thanks than they’re getting,” but “There’s nothing wrong with asking difficult questions.” He told Stack, “It’s been a wonderful opportunity for you to dispel misinformation. . . . No one up here thinks this is a hoax; this is not a political witch hunt; these are questions we get; there’s a lot of frustration.”
Earlier, Carroll had asked Stack, "Why do we not react the same way to these other diseases that we do to covid-19?"
He said that the ultimate mortality rate for covid-19 will probably be about 1 percent, and if only one-third of Kentuckians got infected in a year's time, and 1% died, "That’s 15,000 Kentuckians. . . . That’s why it’s getting so much attention."
Death data: Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, the other co-chair, asked Stack about the recent notice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that only 6 percent of covid-19 fatalities had no other health conditions that could have contributed to their deaths.
"I didn’t think it was newsworthy, quite frankly," Stack said, "because what we have said all along is that the most vulnerable population is people over 60 or 65 and with chronic medical conditions."
Bechler asked if it was "reasonable to suspect that 94 percent of deaths in Kentucky have underlying conditions." Stack said, "It could be even higher," since Kentucky ranks very high in chronic medical conditions.
Sen. Steve West, R-Paris, told Stack that "a lot of Kentuckians are wondering" about the death rate.
Schools: Westerfield asked Stack if he had "any information indicating a return to in-person schooling" before Sept. 28, the date Beshear has recommended.
Stack said they are sticking to that date, and wanted the extra time to learn from the experience of other states. He said he and Beshear are "working on number of things to announce Monday." They have indicated that will include county-level data to guide local decisions.
“We certainly can’t live in fear and not get back to some activities, but we can’t be reckless and careless about it, Stack said. “You could just turbocharge an epidemic,” especially in a major city like Louisville.
Stack replied in writing, "These are all public-health issues. Social-emotional status of students, food insecurity, drug overdoses, child abuse, etc. all weigh on the minds of public health. Balancing these issues with the effects of a deadly virus that spreads so rapidly presents challenges. However, death or long-term health impacts on individuals from this virus cannot be reversed. Currently, these unintended consequences of managing covid-19 are not contemporaneously measureable as [are] individuals diagnosed with covid and any associated deaths. Data is being collected on abuse/neglect as well as for overdose deaths and other behavioral health impacts. The use of medication-assisted therapy, telehealth and other tele-visitation put in place since the very early stages of covid-19’s entrance into Kentucky has been very helpful. The assessment of the full consequences of covid-19 and impact of the measures taken to minimize the impact on individuals and the economy will be measured and studied for years to come."
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.