TRI-COUNTY - As the Commonwealth of Kentucky surpassed 17,000 coronavirus cases this past weekend, along with three straight days of increased number of cases this week, both Laurel County and Knox County were recently named as two of the state's hotspots for the virus.
In a recent study performed by FOCUS Investigation, Laurel and Knox counties join Bell, Harlan, and Clay counties in a list of the top-10 counties with the largest percentage of increase when it comes to coronavirus cases.
The study looks at the number of cases in each county as of June 1, and then compares it to the total number of cases as of July 1. In that span, Knox County jumped from eight cases to 69, a 763% increase ranking it the third highest jump percentage wise in the state.
Knox County Judge Executive Mike Mitchell, who is also the Chairman of the board for the Knox County Health Department, says he has worked with local health officials daily in monitoring the number of cases seen in his county.
“Early on our numbers were good,” said Mitchell. “We didn’t see all that many. We didn’t have deaths [in Knox County] that were attributed to that. Now we’re starting to see that, which it’s very unfortunate that its ended up in one of our health care facilities, it’s extremely unfortunate. I hate that for everyone involved.”
Mitchell was referring to Knox County’s Christian Health Care Communities in Corbin which reported Tuesday that five of its residents had passed away after contracting the coronavirus.
“Our hospital staff, EMS, and other first responders have to deal with this. It takes a lot of nerve to work and care for people that are sick, and then have to go back home to your family with the possibility of bringing it,” Mitchell said. “They’re very professional and I want to commend them on their services.”
According to FOCUS’ report, in that same time span, Laurel County went from 21 cases on June 1, to 111 a month later, a 429% increase, ranking it 10th on the list of hotspots.
Mark Hensley, the director for the Laurel County Health Department, attributes some of Laurel County’s increase in cases to the increase of the county’s testing capacity.
“We have almost doubled our testing capacity. We are now testing anywhere from 700-850 persons per week. So that is one thing we can contribute to the spike in case,” Hensley explained.
“In Laurel County the virus is community spread,” he added later. “Fortunately for us, we haven’t had any large, large outbreaks in churches or nursing homes in our county. So we kind of feel that it’s more community spread here.”
As far as other factors, Hensley said it could be due what he referred to as “COVID fatigue.”
“We are in the summer months,” he said. “People want to be outside. They want to be out with their families, they want to have those family vacations, they want to resume to some type of normalcy,” Hensley continued. “COVID fatigue has set in our society as whole. They’re tired of social distancing. They’re tired of wearing their mask, because wearing a mask is not pleasant. I just think that people are tired of COVID-19.”
The idea of COVID fatigue was echoed by Judge Mitchell, saying he believed that people were becoming too relaxed with the idea of the virus.
“As far as us spiking and the numbers being elevated, I attribute a lot of that to people thinking that this thing’s gone, and not taking the proper precautions as far as PPE and keeping your hands washed and social distancing,” commented Mitchell. “I think that we’ve become laxed on that.”
Mitchell also said that he believes some of the increase in the number of cases could be contributed to out-of-state travel, both Kentuckians traveling to other places and people from other states traveling to Kentucky.
“Our numbers from people who have been to the beaches and been on vacation, it’s evident in our numbers,” Mitchell noted. “Our proximity to I-75 too, and then we have a lot of people up here that go through the the Cumberland Gap that go to Gatlinburg and places. I think people are just going to have to become more cautious as far as how they do their social, everyday life.”
“Even economic stuff, Eastern Kentucky is slow getting it,” Mitchell later added. “It usually trends more in other parts of the country. We get it slower, but we end up hanging on to it longer. I hope that’s not the case here. I hope people will turn around and think about what they’re doing and try to get back on track as far as being safe.”
Mitchell says he has spoken with local church leaders and that some have mentioned to him the idea of returning to providing online services only to try and help prevent the spread of the virus.
“Actually, my wife and I have talked about it and that’s what we plan on doing, we’ll probably go back to online services strictly,” Mitchell said. “We enjoyed going back to church, but we’re probably going to have to back off from that a little bit,” he continued. “I’ve talked to several other churches that people that’s on the same mindset, as far taking some precautions.”
Hensley said that even as health officials are able to learn more about the virus, he believes the total number of cases in our region could see similar increases to this past month’s.
“I think we know better now, but there were thoughts before that heat might kill the virus. We know that’s not the case, just look at Arizona and Florida where they’re seeing a rapid increase,” he said. “But I do think as we continue to test, our numbers will probably increase.”
Hensley said that he’s noticed that more people wore masks back in April and May than they do now, another example of COVID fatigue. That combined with the phase reopening of Kentucky’s economy has some worried that a second spike in Commonwealth’s virus count could be likely.
It is worth noting that the list created by FOCUS is based on the percentage of new cases in each county. Meaning that if a county were to have a relatively low number at the beginning of June, it would be easier for that same county to see a larger increase percentage wise come July, even if that July total is lower than other surrounding counties.
For example, Bell County is tied with Morgan County for fourth on the list at a 700% increase. However, both counties only saw their cases rise from one on June 1 to eight cases by July 1. Whereas, Jefferson County, who saw an increase of nearly 1,400 cases in that month span, only had a 56% increase in its cases.
Out of Kentucky’s 120 counties, 44 saw an increase of 100% or more in cases throughout the month of June.
Hensley’s advice to the community to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines.
“If you’re sick, stay home.,” he said. “When you leave your home each and everyday, be smart. If you can not social distance between six and ten feet, wear a mask. That prevents you from spreading the virus,” he continued. “There are so many folks who are asymptomatic right now, we don’t know who all has the virus. Just be smart. Practice those good personal hygiene practices, wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water isn’t available, use hand sanitizer. Wear your face covering and social distance.”