Friday, December 10, 2021

At term's midpoint, Beshear reflects on pandemic work, saying he wishes he had prepared Kentuckians for a longer fight

Andy Beshear
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As Gov. Andy Beshear passed the mid-point of his four-year term, he spent time with Kentucky Health News to discuss Kentucky's health issues, how he's handled the pandemic, and what he would do over if he had the chance. 

Beshear said he is comfortable with the decisions he's made, given the information he had when he made them. But he said if he had known how long the war against Covid would last, he would have been able to better prepare Kentuckians to understand that they would need to change their lives and lifestyles for a longer period of time than he or they expected. 

"If you can go back to March of 2020, we will have talked about it as a war and about how wars are not fought in weeks, they are fought in years, and that we needed to get ready for a long, drawn-out fight where we would lose a significant number of people, but then we would have more tools and abilities to fight back," he said. "I think preparing people for a longer period of war is something that if I could go back and do over again, I would." 

Kentucky is seeing coronavirus cases and Covid-19 hospitalizations rise again, after recording more than 800,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths since the first Kentucky case was identified in early March 2020. 

"Being a governor in the time of Covid is being a wartime governor," Beshear said. "And this is certainly taking more lives than any war that Kentucky's ever participated in." 

Leaders of the Republican-run legislature have criticized Beshear for not consulting them about pandemic decisions, and in September stripped him of much of his ability to manage the pandemic.

Asked if he would have worked differently with Republicans, he said, "The talking points that the Republicans kept trying to say about not being consulted are simply false," because members of his administration testified more than 70 times at legislative committee hearings. 

"Out of those hearings, I never received a call from leadership to talk about what we were doing in Covid-19," he said. "Those leaders sat in my office and talked about other things."  

Beshear said Republican leaders have said that going through committees is the way to handle such proposals, noting that they turned down his offer to discuss his plan to use $400 million in federal pandemic-relief money to reward essential workers, saying that should be addressed by the committee process. 

Asked why he turned down Republican leaders' offer to provide staff to help with an avalanche of unemployment claims, Beshear said their staffers weren't trained for the work, and it would have taken six months to train them. "If those individuals had been fully trained, we would have taken them in a moment's notice," he said. 

Beshear has said that if he had the authority, he would require universal masking in schools to fight the current surge in cases, but he told Lawrence Smith of Louisville's WDRB that he probably would not impose another statewide mask mandate, as he did in July 2020, if he had the power.

"It certainly wouldn't be broad," he said. "We'd look at the right situations where it needs to be done. We'd certainly look at very large events where there are thousands or tens of thousands of people indoors."

Beshear told Kentucky Health News that his July 2020 order showed "a strong executive branch, a governor willing to make the tough, unpopular decision, requiring masking when it was necessary. It was going to save lives. When the legislature then had the final call, what did you see? They claimed they wanted to be consulted, but they wouldn't and didn't make a decision. They simply punted the ball to local communities that face more pressure than anybody else. So I think time and reality have proven that to be just what it was -- a talking point, and nothing else." 

And contrary to what some may think, Beshear said the pandemic has expanded access to health care for many Kentuckians because of access to "pandemic Medicaid" that made it easier for people to sign up for the free coverage; a Medicaid campaign that targeted minorities who suffered disproportionate rates of infection and death early in the pandemic; and the addition of doctors, nurses and clinics where needed.

The governor said that while it's important to address the immediate health crisis, it's also important to consider funding solutions that address Kentuckians' physical and mental health going forward.

"I think where we have to be in this next budget is first solving our immediate issues that we're facing," he said. "The number one mission has to be to retain and ultimately to hire more social workers. But that doesn't mean that we wait to start funding longer-term prevention programs."

He said that could include efforts to prevent child abuse, programs like the home-visiting program for pregnant women and new parents to support infant development, school-health programs or efforts to prevent the many health conditions that plague Kentuckians, like diabetes, heart and lung disease.

In an effort to retain social workers, Beshear announced Wednesday that they would receive a 10% pay raise this month. He also announced a pilot program to expedite the hiring of qualified social workers, as well as several programs aimed at recruitment and retention that will need legislative approval.

Beshear acknowledged that many of Kentucky's health issues, like substance-use disorder, diabetes and the many diseases caused by smoking, have been more challenging to address during the pandemic, but said that doesn't mean they haven't been addressed, especially with increased access to telemedicine.

"Getting healthier is critical to this economic roll that we are on," he said. "As we look at a record-shattering year, we'll pass the record for new jobs, one of our major workforce issues is disability, is being too sick or too hurt to work, and we've got to lessen the number of people who fall into those categories."

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