As President Donald Trump takes intense criticism for his hamfisted response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus crisis, many are lamenting what might have been if the United States were led by an experienced and rational executive, rather than a conspiratorial buffoon.
Kentucky offers the same stark contrast ― but in reverse. The state is not the epicenter of the United States’ novel coronavirus outbreak, or even the site of that many cases ― there were 14 confirmed as of Friday evening. But since then, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat who is only four months into his term, has held near-daily news conferences to update reporters and Kentucky residents on the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He has struck a calm but urgent tone and empowered Kentucky’s public health officials to speak frankly and clearly about the depth of the outbreak in the Bluegrass State, the potential for it to get worse, and the steps his government is taking to mitigate it.
Beshear has called on public schools to close, warned Kentuckians to avoid large crowds, and even urged them to avoid going to church ― which he acknowledged was risky in a deeply religious state. The moves might seem drastic, especially to those who still believe this is all a result of media-driven panic or a conspiracy to bring down Trump. But they follow the recommendations of national public health officials and experts who have warned that the crisis will get worse and that limiting people-to-people contact is currently the best way to deal with it.
Beshear’s response has earned praise even from top Republicans in the state, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported this week.
The man Beshear just defeated in a tight election last November, meanwhile, reacted to the COVID-19 outbreak like this:
Bevin faced plenty of criticism during his four years as governor, most of which he earned himself thanks to his bullying approach to the job. But it was another public health crisis that might have marked the low point of Bevin’s single term in office and his shoot-from-the-hip style of governing.
In the middle of the crisis, Bevin peddled anti-vaccination conspiracies on a local radio show, saying in March 2019 that he had taken his nine children to a “pox party” in order to intentionally expose them to chickenpox.
The comment was unrelated to the hepatitis A outbreak, but it came amid scrutiny of the state’s handling of the epidemic and efforts to expand the number of Kentuckians getting hepatitis A vaccines. “Is a time when Kentucky is in the grips of the worst hepatitis A outbreak in the nation and already 44 people have died from the disease, which is also preventable by a vaccine, the best time to be arguing against mandated vaccinations?” one newspaper editorial board in Kentucky asked.
Kentucky’s health secretary said at the time that there was no “hesitancy” to “recommend, purchase or distribute” vaccinations for hepatitis A, despite Bevin’s remark. But the then-governor himself didn’t publicly urge Kentuckians to get vaccinated against hepatitis A until a week later.
At that point, the crisis had already reached its peak: By June 2019, more than 4,000 Kentuckians had been infected and nearly 60 had died. The Bluegrass State alone was home to one-third of the nationwide deaths tied to the hepatitis A outbreak.
Kentucky faced widespread criticism for its response, or lack thereof. The state was too slow to act at the outset, critics alleged, even though it had plenty of warning that an outbreak that could have been contained was turning into an epidemic. Kentucky didn’t act strongly enough once it did respond: In 2018, the state’s head of infectious diseases requested $10 million to supplement vaccination programs and local health departments, which had actually earned praise for their response but needed help. Bevin’s administration provided just $3 million to combat the crisis, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Kentucky never declared a state of emergency.
The medical official Bevin’s administration put in charge of infectious diseases, meanwhile, had previously been fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs for “egregious” medical misconduct that the VA said had raised “reasonable concern for the safety of patients.”
There was plenty of blame to go around, but it’s hard to ignore the parallels to the current situation, even if they aren’t exact.
Trump has entertained conspiracies instead of developing an actual response. The drastic action necessary to combat COVID-19 never happened, meaning even more drastic measures are necessary now. The current outbreak is only going to get worse, but even as Trump has begun to realize that, he’s incapable of delivering anything resembling a clear, coherent or calming message to the public. The United States still isn’t conducting enough tests or providing enough funding to strapped local health departments that are doing their best.
Trump’s slow response will put countless Americans at increased risk of illness and even death, and has left more responsible public officials ― including both Republican and Democratic governors ― to deliver the sort of response the president isn’t capable of. And the man Trump put in charge? Vice President Mike Pence, as governor of Indiana, once oversaw an HIV outbreak that his response only made worse.
Beshear won November’s election by fewer than 5,000 votes, a margin so thin that it’s impossible to attribute to any one factor, especially in a state rattled by protests and upheaval throughout Bevin’s term in office. Regardless, it meant that when COVID-19 hit the United States, Kentuckians didn’t have to worry that their governor had already botched the response to one outbreak and would only respond to this one with more conspiratorial innuendo, blame for the media and a bad joke about toilet paper.
Maybe there’s a lesson there.
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