Kentucky was hit with record numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units as cases are driven up by the fast-spreading delta variant, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday.
More than 20 Kentucky hospitals are confronting critical staffing shortages, and some hospitals are converting space to treat the influx of ICU patients, the governor said.
"Our hospitalizations have been doubling just about every two weeks," Beshear said at a news conference. "And folks, that means we are getting really close to every single bed across the entire commonwealth that we can staff being full."
Beshear presented grim statistics to show the severity of the surge. The state had 2,596 new COVID-19 cases — a pandemic high for any Monday in Kentucky — and 17 more virus-related deaths.
More than 1,890 virus patients were reported hospitalized in Kentucky, including 529 in intensive care units, he said. A record 301 Kentucky virus patients were on ventilators.
The surge comes as the Republican-dominated legislature assumes considerably more control over Kentucky's response to COVID-19. The state Supreme Court on Saturday cleared the way for laws limiting the governor's emergency powers to take effect.
The Democratic governor acknowledged the shift in power Monday.
"Up to now, I've carried the football," making the "tough, unpopular decisions," Beshear said. Based on the court's ruling, those policy decisions now will be made by lawmakers, he said.
"I certainly hope that they will ... make the very best and sometimes courageous decisions that are necessary," the governor said.
He brought up one contentious issue, saying Kentucky is "reaching the point" where a statewide mask mandate would be needed in response to hospitals filling up. Beshear's options include potentially calling lawmakers into a special session to deal with pandemic issues.
"I think in the very least, we can hopefully come to agreement on some basic tools that we're using to fight this," he said. "And then maybe it will take deeper conversation for the others."
State Senate President Robert Stivers said lawmakers will be ready if reconvened by the governor.
"We have been formulating for quite some time things that we think would be effective," he told reporters. "And if the governor decides to call us into special session, we'll be prepared to roll those things out. Hopefully we'll do it in collaboration with the governor's office."
Stivers stressed that "COVID is very real" and that "we need to do everything we can do" to give incentives for people to get the vaccinations.
"The best way to deal and cope with it is getting as many shots in arms as possible," he said.
Meanwhile, the governor wielded some of his authority on Monday, announcing that National Guard personnel will provide logistical and administrative support starting Sept. 1 at some Kentucky hospitals. Receiving the initial assistance will be The Medical Center at Bowling Green, St. Claire Regional Medical Center at Morehead and Pikeville Medical Center.
Beshear also said he was submitting a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for additional health care professionals to help where they are most needed.
Kentucky would receive eight teams comprised of eight registered nurses and two certified nursing assistants if the request is granted. The teams would travel to Kentucky hospitals experiencing staffing and resource shortages. The request also would include two certified Emergency Management Services "strike teams" to transport patients if they need care and the hospital where they seek it is full or under-resourced.
As he's increasingly done in recent weeks, Beshear turned over part of his briefing to frontline doctors and nurses to discuss the virus-related hardships in their hospitals.
Steve Haines, nursing director of critical care services at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center in Danville, said the latest surge has been "pretty horrific."
Prior virus escalations occurred gradually, he said, but this time, "it was like the door opened" and the virus "just kicked it in. We were immediately overwhelmed."
In a video, Haines talked of virus patients being scared and fighting to breathe.
"We put all their families on FaceTime," he said. "We let them have maybe their last conversation with their family member and we put them on a ventilator. It's horrible."
The hospital's small morgue has been overwhelmed by the virus surge, he said. When a patient dies, "housekeeping comes in, cleans the room and we're putting somebody else in there," Haines said.
In one hopeful sign, nearly 32,000 Kentuckians were vaccinated against COVID-19 since Saturday, the governor said. Overall, 56% of the state's population has received at least one vaccine dose.