Kentucky warily eases into daily life as nation's death toll from COVID-19 reaches 100,000
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — March 6, the day Kentucky announced its first case of COVID-19, was a mere 12 weeks ago.
But, as the nation on Wednesday marked its 100,000th death from the pandemic, those 12 weeks have brought dramatic changes to daily life in Kentucky as people struggle to adjust to deaths, suffering and utter disruption of their lives in the aftermath of the coronavirus.
"This is a hard, mean, deadly virus," Gov. Andy Beshear said, speaking about the disease that has killed at least 400 Kentuckians and infected more than 9,000. "It takes people that we love and prevents us from getting together for the type of memorial or funeral that we like.
"It's a hard day, passing 100,000 deaths," Beshear added in an interview with The Courier Journal on Wednesday. "Losing 100,000 Americans ought to impact all of us and continue to unite us to fight this."
In Kentucky, COVID-19 has struck hard at the state's nursing homes, triggered soaring unemployment, emptied offices as employees work from home, closed schools, colleges and churches, shut down bars and restaurants, and suspended a host of activities ranging from the Kentucky Derby to concerts, art festivals and college and high school sports.
"It's made people really strip this thing to the bare necessities, what is really important," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer told The Courier Journal on Wednesday. "If you don't have your personal health, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can't take care of the people you love, your friends and your family, then why are we here?"
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While thousands of Kentuckians have seen or felt the effects of COVID-19, here are just a few of those affected:
— A southeastern Kentucky college professor whose tribute to her grandmother, one of the early deaths attributed to COVID-19, went viral after it was published in The Courier Journal. June Beverly Hill, 85, of Sacramento, Kentucky, was among the 1,000 names published in The New York Times on Sunday as a tribute to Americans who have succumbed to the disease.
"No one made creamed potatoes or fried sweet corn the way she did," The Times said, quoting the obituary.
"I think she would have gotten a kick out of that because she was always proud of those potatoes," said her granddaughter, Jamey Temple, an associate professor of English at the University of the Cumberlands, who wrote the piece in honor of her grandmother.
And while some Kentuckians may be getting COVID-19 "fatigue," Temple said Wednesday it's important to remember the toll and personal loss it has brought.
"I think people are hurting in a lot of different ways," she said.
— An Eastern Kentucky nursing home administrator fighting to keep the coronavirus out of his small, family-owned facility in Louisa and trying explain to elderly residents — many with with dementia — why visitors are no longer allowed. One elderly woman recently asked if she had done something wrong.
"She asked, 'What did I do?'" said David McKenzie, administrator of the Jordan Center. "It breaks my heart, and I don't know what we can do about this."
Meanwhile, McKenzie said he's heartened by an outpouring of donated supplies that have poured in since The Courier Journal reported his struggle to get personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, for his staff.
"It keeps coming. My office is stacked up even higher," he said.
— A parish priest in Louisville, working with his congregation for a slow, safe reopening of church services now that the state has cleared houses of worship to reopen. While some churches resumed services Sunday, the Rev. John Schwartzlose, pastor of St. Gabriel's Church, said he and his parishioners are still considering the best way to do so.
"Nothing has changed," he said, referring to the virus still circulating. "The only thing we are allowed to do is to go back more carefully to the places we evacuated in March."
Still, Schwartzlose hopes some good emerges from the pandemic.
"There has to be something good that has to come out of this that we take away and become better human beings because of it," he said.
— A new graduate of the Bellarmine University nursing program who had her final semester of college disrupted by the virus and encountered the grim reality of critically ill COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit of a hospital where she did clinical work.
Within a few weeks she went from being a "carefree, 22-year-old college student," said Rachel Bell, to seeing COVID-19 patients on ventilators and other severely ill patients unable to have visitors because of restrictions.
"There's still people in there having strokes and heart attacks," she said. "They're in there all alone. They're alone and scared."
Beshear said Wednesday in his daily news briefing that Kentucky's numbers of COVID-19 infections look encouraging.
"The numbers suggest that we are no longer in a plateau, but in a decline," he said.
But in the interview earlier Wednesday, Beshear said the state must continue to exercise every precaution to prevent a resurgence of the disease, even as his administration works to gradually ease many of the restrictions to limit gatherings and control the spread of the virus.
"COVID-19 is a once-in-an-every-100-year pandemic," Beshear said. "It spreads aggressively. It can be deadly and it has impacted the entire world, the entire United States and certainly the entire commonwealth."
Despite objections from some and several protests at the Capitol of people demanding the right to reopen businesses, return to church and resume other activities, Beshear said he has no regrets about imposing many of the restrictions that followed his decision to declare a state of emergency in Kentucky on March 6.
Early projections showed thousands of deaths in Kentucky without them, he said.
"The most convincing model showed that if we had done nothing, there's a real chance we could have lost 20,000 people," he said. "That's why we took the type of actions that we did."
Fischer said he believes swift action helped save many thousands of lives in Louisville, as well.
"We were watching Italy and New York," both cities with devastating death tolls from COVID-19, Fischer said. "That could have happened in our city, too."
Instead, Louisville has experienced about 160 deaths.
Still, Fischer said, the losses are devastating, and a key reason people must continue to follow protocols such as limiting social interactions, wearing masks in public, washing hands frequently and accepting life will not return to what was normal until a vaccine is discovered.
"Be humble to the virus," he said. "You might think you are managing the virus. That is a joke. When we drop our guard, it will come roaring back."