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COVID numbers explode across Letcher County


The number of COVID-19 cases in Letcher County has exploded in the past week with cases among football referees, athletes, and the medical community, and more than double the highest number of weekly cases since the pandemic began.

The total number of cases reported here in the past week was 46 compared to 20 cases the week before. Monday alone saw 19 cases COVID-19 in Letcher County, including members of a football officiating crew that worked the Letcher Middle School and Harlan Independent game last Tuesday night. Scott Lockard, Director of Public Health for the Kentucky River District, said one official tested positive late last week, followed by most of the rest of the crew.

“We have quarantined the crew, and three of them have now converted,” Lockard said. “Three of the four-person team are now positive.”

A boys’ soccer player, a girls’ soccer player and a cross-country runner have also tested positive, as have two teachers, both at elementary schools, Superintendent Denise Yonts said Monday morning.

At least 10 people working in Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp.’s Whitesburg Clinic have also tested positive, including three pharmacy employees and an outside laboratory employee, Lockard said.

Mike Caudill, chief executive officer of MCHC, issued a prepared statement that the community as a whole is having to live with positive cases.

“At MCHC, we take our commitment to protect the health of our patients and staff very seriously,” the statement says. “As a health provider, we are in a unique position to look out for COVID-19 infections far more so than the average business and household.”

The statement goes on to outline the company’s guidelines, which include screening staff members before they enter the building, and sending any who exhibit symptoms to an isolation room for testing.

“If they’re positive, they are sent home to isolation for 10 days per CDC and state guidelines,” it says. “Anyone who, in violation of our guidelines, had direct contact with the employee without proper PPE is sent home for a minimum of 14 days.”

Those guidelines include wearing personal protective equipment, including a mask, whenever they are in the presence of another person, whether it is a patient or member of the staff. Each case is reviewed by Dr. Fares Khater, an infectious disease specialist at the clinic.

The jump in cases in the past week has pushed the county into the red zone on the school guidance map put out by the Kentucky Department of Education and the Department of Public Health, meaning all sporting events and extracurricular activities should be canceled and cannot resume until the county is back to the yellow zone on the map. In order to reach the yellow zone, the county can average no more than about two positive cases per day over a seven-day period, based on the population. Jenkins Independent Schools on Monday canceled all games and practices. It announced last week that classes would not resume this week.

The number of cases had been well below the state standards until the week after Labor Day. Letcher County had 21 cases that week and 20 last week.

While in-person classes and school sporting events can’t be held, the same rules don’t apply to private businesses. Mountain Motorsports Park at Isom is planning a four-day festival this week with several races, food booths, games, and a beauty pageant.

Jamie Hughes, who is listed as a contact for the festival on the park’s Facebook event page, said the festival can be held within the guidelines “for sure.”

“Others have done it, and didn’t have the amount of space we have to offer,” Hughes said.

Hughes is also pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church at Garner in Knott County, where the District Health Department now says there is a cluster of more than 50 cases of COVID-19 following a wedding on Sept. 12, and a church service the following day.

Hughes is among those who has COVID-19. He spoke with The Mountain Eagle via Facebook Messenger from his hospital room in Hazard.

“We had not had a single instance when we went by the guidelines. But I will be the first to say, the one time we let our guard down and exceeded the guidelines, we got in trouble,” Hughes said. “As long as you can maintain the social distance and wear the mask and do things right, things can be done.”

Lockard, while saying he did not intend to point a finger at anyone, said the Knott County cases should be a warning to others planning large events.

“I think it’s a prime lesson for us,” he said. “If we let our guard down at one event, it has a ripple effect through the whole community.”

Lockard said he would tell the speedway not to have the event if he had that authority, but he can only make a recommendation. The Kentucky Labor Department had already issued a warning to the speedway weeks ago because of alleged failure to meet guidelines, Lockard said.

“We’re turning everything with the speedway over to the Labor Department,” he said.

While Letcher County had had the lowest rate of any of the surrounding counties, that changed this week. Of the surrounding counties, only Knott County has a higher rate of cases than Letcher. In absolute numbers, Perry County is higher than Letcher, however because of its larger population the positivity rate is lower in Perry.

Just 12 counties in Kentucky now have higher rates than Letcher. Knott County has the highest rate of any county. Union County in western Kentucky has the second-highest.

Surrounding counties and the number of cases reported as of Tuesday afternoon are as follows: Knott – Total, 210 (28 probable) (93 active, 116 recovered, 1 dead); Lee – Total, 15 (1 probable) (1 active, 14 recovered); Leslie – Total, 77 (7 probable) (30 active, 47 recovered); Letcher – Total, 166 (55 probable) (74 active, 90 recovered, 2 dead); Owsley – Total, 41 (13 probable) (9 active, 31 recovered, 1 dead); Perry – Total, 338 (25 probable) (40 active, 289 recovered, 9 dead); Wolfe – Total, 42 (9 probable) (12 active, 30 recovered); Pike – Total, 465 (70 active, 392 recovered, 3 dead); Harlan – Total, 462 (10 dead); Wise Co., Va. – Total, 421 (32 hospitalized, 9 dead); Norton, Va. – Total, 34 (3 hospitalized).

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