As Kentucky has now passed 1,000 deaths and 57,000 COVID-19 cases, state Republican lawmakers are again openly accusing Gov. Andy Beshear of inflating the number of casualties and cases to "manipulate" and "control" Kentuckians.
On Thursday, the same day Kentucky announced its highest daily number of COVID-19 deaths — 22 — some lawmakers continued to question the accuracy of the state's data and whether the public should believe it.
Leading the criticism was Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican and co-chairman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, which called in Dr. Steven Stack, public health commissioner, for a second round of questions about how the state gets the COVID-19 numbers that Gov. Andy Beshear releases daily.
"What I do have problems with is the way that information is being used, not being completely accurate," Carroll said. "It's being used to manipulate our people, to make our people scared, to control our people."
Carroll said he gets daily complaints from people in his Western Kentucky district.
"Half of this state doesn't believe a word you all say when it comes to this data," he said, a repeat of his comments to Stack last month when the physician appeared before the committee.
Sen. Mike Nemes, a Shepherdsville Republican, wondered why restrictions are imposed on businesses such as bars when most of the deaths are occurring among the elderly, the majority in nursing homes.
"There's no 80-year-olds coming out of a bar at night," he said. "What are we doing to stop the elderly from dying?"
Stack told the committee that the state's numbers overall are reliable and provide an accurate picture of the spread and impact of COVID-19 in Kentucky, which he said he has stated in public repeatedly.
"The data has limitations. The data has imperfections," he said. "But even allowing for all those things, the data is incredibly valuable and incredibly informative and helps to guide decision-making when used in the proper context."
He said the elderly continue to be at greatest risk from the virus and stringent measures are in effect for nursing homes to try to limit spread. And anyone who visits a bar and gets infected has the potential to spread it to others, he said.
As at the previous meeting, the discussion broke down along partisan lines, with Republicans who control the legislature criticizing Beshear, a Democrat, and members of the governor's party defending him.
Sen. Karen Berg, a Louisville Democrat and the only physician on the panel, sounded incredulous as she accused committee members including Carroll of seeking to discredit data about COVID-19.
"I talk to constituents daily whose response is, 'Thank God, thank God, our governor is acting, thank God our administration is acting,'" she said. "Think how many more people would be dead."
Berg added she found the debate especially upsetting because "I'm on the front lines. I go to the hospital and fight this every day."
It really says something that there's only one medical professional on the General Assembly's main oversight committee. It's also astonishing to me that six months after the pandemic started, we still have state lawmakers that lack basic knowledge of epidemiology.
Lawmakers asked about recent news reports of a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 94% of deaths linked to COVID-19 were among people with "comorbidities," other health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
"Is COVID really the basis" (of such deaths)? asked Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Marion Republican and committee co-chairman.
Yes, Stack said. While evidence shows people with other health conditions are more likely to have serious or fatal outcomes from COVID-19, only deaths believed caused by the coronavirus are listed as such, he said.
"We've said all along people with chronic medical problems are in the highest of risk categories," Stack told the committee. "I think there are a lot of people, perhaps some people in this room, who are taking blood pressure pills, cholesterol pills, diabetes medication and are doing just fine and will continue to live for quite a few more decades."
And that's important to point out: the comorbidities have existing prevention and treatment options. COVID-19 doesn't have an effective treatment.
I shudder to think of how many thousands would be dead over the last six months if Matt Bevin were in his second term.