How Kentucky became a surprising leader in flattening the curve on COVID-19

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear celebrates with supporters on election night.

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As states in the US South and Midwest see their coronavirus infection rates grow, the rate remains notably low in a state with some of the worst health outcomes nationally. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has drawn bipartisan praise for navigating the outbreak in a calm and decisive manner, including declaring a state of emergency in early March that gave local officials time to help residents as well as school, health and other officials protect and plan against the global pandemic.

And his calm, fact-based daily news briefings, which have drawn comparisons to President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats, have earned Beshear a new status as a sex symbol on social media.

On Tuesday, Kentucky officials reported the state’s fourth death due to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, and said the state’s total number of confirmed infections had reached 163. Despite officials’ repeated admonitions against social gatherings, some in the state still don’t take the risk seriously. At least one of the latest infections — that of an adult in their 20s — originated at a «coronavirus party.»

Read more: Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, coronavirus meme hero: ‘He protec. He attac’

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In comparison, neighboring Indiana had reported 365 confirmed cases and 12 deaths by Monday. Tennessee, which has 2.3 million more residents than Kentucky, had 517 confirmed cases and one death as of Sunday.

«We’ve seen states take very different approaches,» Beshear, 42, said in a briefing on Sunday. «We have already done a whole lot of what other states are doing in one major — and sometimes it seems scary — order.»

Asked this week whether his administration has seen positive results from its efforts, Beshear said it was still early. «We are in the midst of it, and I believe we are taking aggressive and important steps that are, and will, save people’s lives. But it will be really hard to know exactly how we have done until we are further through it and have more data,» he told reporters. «Our numbers aren’t necessarily jumping as fast as some other ones are.»

As of last week, state public health leaders reported that about 7% of COVID-19 tests conducted in Kentucky had come back positive. The state’s junior senator, Rand Paul, also disclosed that he tested positive for the virus, becoming the first member of the Senate to receive such a diagnosis. As reported by local CBS affiliate WYMT, Kentucky is faring average among surrounding states, with a lower percentage than Indiana’s 20% and Tennessee’s 27% positive-test rate. Kentucky’s 7% is, however, higher than rates in West Virginia and Missouri, which have fewer cases and have done less testing. It’s also higher than the rate in Virginia, which has double the number of cases and substantially more tests completed.

Beshear’s battle to «flatten the curve,» or slow the spread of the coronavirus, has been charted in his daily press briefings, where he routinely appears with Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack and American Sign Language interpreter Virginia Moore. Beshear’s calm, methodical explanations of the state’s efforts to combat the spread, always accompanied by repeated reassurances in the face of panic, have received praise across social media.

More telling is the praise the Democratic governor has received from conservative Republicans in the state.

Republican Robert Stivers, president of the Kentucky state Senate, said earlier this month that the Beshear administration’s «consistent updates on the state of public health» have helped «efforts to ensure our public health groups are prepared for this situation.»

Although both the Kentucky House and Senate had been considering measures to restrict executive branch power in the weeks prior to Beshear’s COVID-19 response, Republican David Osborne, Kentucky’s speaker of the house, more recently pledged to aid Beshear’s efforts. He told the Courier Journal newspaper that he thinks the governor has the «authority he needs to take action, but we are prepared to step in with additional support if necessary.»

Other influential Republican voices have also chimed in with support, including former Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, who tweeted that Beshear «has done a masterful job leading us in this unprecedented public health crisis. Proud of him (and for this state). I shudder to think what could have been.»

Following a conversation with Beshear, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to back the governor’s efforts to obtain supplies, according to a Tuesday press release.

«I urge you to work with Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear as his administration requests additional PPE and test kits from your department,» McConnell said.

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