Citing exponential growth of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Kentucky, K-12 schools are now required to enforce universal masking among students and staff, Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Tuesday, as he reported 2,500 new cases — the most reported in a single day since early January.

Beshear said he will sign an executive order Tuesday requiring all teachers, staff and students in K-12 schools, child care and pre-Kindergarten programs across Kentucky to wear a mask indoors. His executive order applies for 30 days and leaves open the indefinite possibility for renewal.

“We are to the point where we cannot allow our kids to go into these buildings unprotected, unvaccinated and face this Delta variant,” he said Tuesday in the state Capitol. “There is no other option. This is absolutely what we have to do.”

Community spread of coronavirus is smothering the state, he said. “We are in the midst of the fastest surge that we have ever seen of [COVID-19] in the commonwealth right now.”

Kentucky has reported six consecutive weeks of rising case numbers and an “absolutely alarming” rate of climbing hospitalizations that have reached mid February levels, doubling every two weeks, Beshear said. On Tuesday, 1,251 people were hospitalized for coronavirus, 339 were in intensive care and 168 were on a ventilator. A month ago, 226 people were hospitalized, 72 were in the ICU and 38 were on a ventilator.

In the first week of August, Kentucky saw a 43% increase in the total number of hospitalized coronavirus-positive patients statewide; a 32% increase in ICU patients; and a 61% increase in the number of patients on a ventilator, Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack said, adding “that’s a near vertical climb.”

Fifteen of the state’s 96 acute care hospitals have recently reported staffing shortages, he said, asking people who have scheduled elective procedures in the coming weeks to consider rescheduling them. “It’s not a good time to be in the hospital if you don’t have to be,” Stack warned.

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Kentucky has also reported more than six weeks of an escalating positivity rate, which hit 11.07% on Tuesday.

“Without intervention, at the rate we’re currently at, we expect to have the most Kentuckians hospitalized in two weeks than we’ve had at any time during this pandemic,” Beshear said.

Intervention, he said, must come in the form of a school mask mandate as students and teachers return to enclosed classrooms for hours at a time — environments that are ripe for accelerating spread. Groups representing the private sector, education and health care, including public health directors across the state and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, publicly voiced support for the governor’s mandate on Tuesday.

Late last month, Beshear and Dr. Stack called on K-12 school districts to enforce universal masking of students and staff indoors, regardless of vaccination status. It began as a recommendation, not a mandate. Most districts, however, did not heed that call, choosing instead to keep masking optional. Beshear said at least 48 had already mandated masking.

At least a few have already changed course this week, including Warren, Oldham County, Jessamine County and Montgomery County.

Clay County’s public school system, which returned to the classroom on Wednesday, August 5, gave teachers and students the option of masking. By the end of the day Monday, after three days of in-person school, the district had reported 13 new cases of the virus, which led to quarantining 198 students and staff, School Board Chairman Mark Hoskins said. The board changed course Monday night and universally mandated masks.

Beshear again begged the roughly 48% of Kentuckians who are not yet vaccinated to get their shot, noting that a statewide mask mandate is not off the table if COVID-19 trends continue accelerating.

“You’re the cause,” he said. “Please fix it. Get the shot.”

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