Letcher County Schools and Jenkins Independent Schools employees will get their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine next week, Letcher County School Superintendent Denise Yonts announced Monday.
But while vaccinations are increasing in speed, Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Tuesday that the first cases of a new variant of the virus that spreads faster have also been identified in the Kentucky.
The Letcher County District has signed up 411 of its 484 employees, or about 85 percent, for a mass vaccination event over a two-day period next week. Jenkins Independent School District staff will also participate, raising the total number of vaccinations to nearly 500, Yonts said.
Yonts made the announcement at the regular Letcher County Board of Education meeting on Monday night. Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation will be partnering with the school district and the local health department to give the shots. They will be given February 4 and February 5 at the Letcher County Central High School gymnasium.
The mass vaccination is intended to help get students back into the classroom after nearly a year of virtual instruction. Even with students at home, the Letcher County District has been notified that 48 students and 139 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since November.
While students are home, teachers are at the schools teaching online classes and grading work, cooks are preparing food, and bus drivers are delivering the meals to students. At the beginning of January, Yonts said, 35 staff members were quarantined, but that number has dropped every week and now stands at 12.
“We are seeing the number coming down,” Yonts said.
Board member Robert Kiser questioned whether Board Chairwoman Mindy Boggs, who works at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, or Yonts had seen any comparison of the number of flu cases this year to years past.
Yonts said she had not, but had read in a news story that the cases of flu are down significantly because “the mitigation strategies used to keep us safe from COVID also work for the flu.”
“I actually had a doctor at ARH tell me that he hadn’t seen a single case of the flu,” Kiser said.
“It makes me wonder if a lot of flu cases are being called COVID.”
Yonts said recent patients are being tested for both flu and COVID. Boggs said there have been some flu cases, but there are less than normal.
“We also have a record number of people getting the flu vaccine,” she said.
Boggs said she supposed it was possible that some cases are misreported, a statement that prompted Kiser to say “so COVID is the flu.” The theory that the two diseases are the same has been widely debunked. Though they share some symptoms, they are caused by different viruses and health outcomes with COVID-19 are much worse than with flu.
A study of French medical records published in the British medical journal The Lancet shows nearly twice as many people were treated for COVID-19 as flu over a two-month period, and that COVID-19 is 2.9 times as deadly as flu, and 2.83 times as deadly when standardized by age. The mortality rate for teens ages 11 to 17 is 10 times higher for COVID-19 than for flu, according to the study, which looked at outcomes for 89,530 COVID patients and 45,819 influenza patients. According to the study, pediatric patients with COVID had a lower incidence of hospitalization than those with flu, but those under 5 years of age needed intensive care much more often for COVID than for flu.
In the U.S., numbers of new cases are beginning to decrease as the vaccine is being distributed and people are adhering better to mask and social distancing mandates, but scientists have also identified several new variants of the virus. Gov. Beshear said two cases of the COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom have been confirmed in the commonwealth.
“Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack is going to talk about this more tomorrow. The U.K. variant does spread more aggressively, but he’ll take us through all the implications of having this strain here,” Beshear said.
He said Tuesday that he had received a call from the President’s COVID-19 team telling him that the federal government will increase each state’s supply of vaccines by 17 percent.
“That is a great start,” Beshear said. “The other thing they are doing is guaranteeing a minimum supply for three straight weeks. One of the tough things we’ve been dealing with is only knowing on a Tuesday what we would have the next week and not knowing what we would have in the weeks after.”
The state received around 54,000 doses last week. A 17-percent increase would mean the state could receive over 63,000 doses per week, still far below the state’s capacity to administer them.
In Letcher County, the state figures show a total of 1,451 cases as of Tuesday evening, up 71 from a week earlier, a slower climb than the county had been experiencing. The incident rate on Tuesday was 51.0 per 100,000, down from 61.0 last Tuesday, and 92.8 the week before.
COVID-19 cases in the area as reported by the state are as follows: Knott – Total 873 (14 dead, incident rate 22.2); Lee – Total 1,122 (18 dead, incident rate 34.7); Leslie – Total 660 (1 dead, incident rate 23.1); Letcher – Total 1,451 (5 dead, incident rate 51.0); Owsley – Total 362 (10 dead, incident rate 12.9); Perry – Total 1,925 (24 dead, incident rate 29.4); Wolfe – Total 374 (4 dead, incident rate 24.0); Harlan – Total 2,105 (35 dead, incident rate 63.2); Pike – Total 4,188 (39 dead, incident rate 57.5); Wise Co., Va. – Total 2,602 (134 hospitalized, 83 dead); Norton, Va. – Total 227 (14 hospitalized, 2 dead).