'No longer in a crisis': Gov. Andy Beshear holds last COVID-19 briefing as cases decline

Deborah Yetter
Louisville Courier Journal
Robert Embry of Rueff Sign Co. removes the mask from the statue of David outside the 21C Museum Hotel on June 11, 2021, the day Gov. Andy Beshear formally lifted the mask mandate.

FRANKFORT — A buoyant Gov. Andy Beshear, speaking at his last regular news briefing on COVID-19, said Kentucky has come far since the first case of the virus was reported in March 2020, leading to thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of infections.

"After more than 15 months of struggle and of sacrifice, we can say this: While COVID remains a threat, we are no longer in a crisis," Beshear said. 

To mark the occasion, Beshear signed executive orders officially lifting the state's blanket mask mandate, limits on capacity at stores, restaurants and other venues and workplace restrictions that included masks and social distancing.

But he warned Kentuckians can't become complacent.

More:Kentucky COVID-19 restrictions end Friday, signaling hope and a return to normalcy for many

With about 2.1 million Kentuckians having received the first shot of vaccine — about half those currently eligible — many more need to get vaccinated to ensure the state is protected from COVID-19, he said.

"Let me be clear," Beshear said. "COVID-19 remains deadly. Our war against it is not yet won."

And he urged people not to forget the more than 7,100 Kentuckians who died from COVID-19 over the past 15 months. He noted Friday marked the last time he would read off the ages and counties of those who had died.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear suggests the labor shortage is, in part, a result of the unexpectedly swift success the state and national economy have had in rebounding from the pandemic.

"Let's remember that those just aren’t ages or counties or genders," Beshear said. "They are irreplaceable Kentuckians that will be missed by their families and their communities."

He added: "Reading ages and counties of those we have lost almost daily is the hardest thing I have ever done."

Citing significant declines in new deaths and infections from COVID-19 along with a steady increase in vaccinated Kentuckians, Beshear said he will end the regular COVID-19 briefing that he initially held daily as cases  began to surge. 

The briefings and some of the actions by Beshear, a Democrat, drew criticism, chiefly from Republicans who control the House and Senate and hold all other five constitutional offices. But others said they appreciated regular updates, particularly in the early days of the pandemic when people were hungry for news about the rapidly spreading virus.

More:As Beshear prepares to lift COVID-19 rules, Supreme Court hears cases on governor's powers

Now, 460 days and 250 news briefings later, Beshear said he's ready to look ahead,

On Friday, he was alternately upbeat and reflective as he described the progress Kentucky has made, particularly with vaccinations, but considered the toll it has taken with more than 471,000 people infected with COVID-19 since March 2019.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear says goodbye to interpreter Virginia Moore as he leaves the Capitol rotunda following the last Covid-19 update. June 11, 2021

He also briefly mentioned the controversy generated by some of the restrictions, such as the mask mandate, or protests by those opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine.

"What we have done as a people should not be diminished by the noise," he said. "It is nothing short of amazing."

Beshear used the event to celebrate what he described as the accomplishment of Kentuckians who joined the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to thank his staff for efforts to fight a virus that in the early days was little understood.

Among those he recognized were Dr. Steven Stack, state public health commissioner; Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services; J. Michael Brown, his cabinet secretary; and LaTasha Buckner, Beshear's chief of staff.

He also praised Virginia Moore, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, for her regular appearances at his briefings to provide an interpretation in sign language and who became a celebrity in her own right.

Stack, who also appeared frequently at Beshear's news conferences, spoke Friday and drew laughter over his comments about the final COVID-19 briefing.

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"It is good to be here, but it's also good to be here for the last time," he said.

Stack urged Kentuckians to thank everyone involved in fighting COVID-19, in particular officials with local health departments.

"I hope you all express your gratitude to them for the work that they have done to  keep us safe," he said.

And Stack highlighted the importance of the COVID-19 vaccines that first became available in late December as the best tool against ending the pandemic.

"These vaccine are amazing," he said.

One recent incentive Beshear announced appears to be catching on.

Nearly 370,000 vaccinated Kentuckians have entered the state's "Shot at a Million" incentive program for their shot at $1 million or a free college education, Beshear said Friday.

He launched the Shot At A Million initiative on June 4, which will make three Kentuckians 18 and older millionaires and provide free college education for 15 youths ages 12 to 17.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear leaves the Capitol rotunda after giving what at the time was to be the last regular COVID-19 update. June 11, 2021

The orders Beshear signed Friday include one that lifts the mask requirements with a few exceptions, including public transit, health care settings and nursing homes. People who have not been vaccinated are encouraged to keep wearing masks in public.

The order was largely symbolic in that most stores, gyms, restaurants, churches and  other settings already have begun to lift the mask mandate for people who are fully vaccinated, under recent guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beshear did not lift his order declaring a public health emergency despite calls from some Republican leaders for him to do so.

More:After 16 months, Gov. Andy Beshear's last COVID-19 briefing is Friday. Here's a look back

At a press conference of Republican Senate leaders Thursday, Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, called on Beshear to immediately declare an end to the state of emergency in Kentucky, saying the majority of states have set a firm date for when their emergency will end.

“We cannot continue to operate in a declared emergency and move this state forward the way it should move, when other states are ending pandemic unemployment assistance, no longer have mask mandates,” Givens said.

Beshear said Friday some federal pandemic aid programs including a $96 million grant for vaccine distribution and administration require the state have a declared public health emergency.

He said his administration is studying which assistance programs require such an emergency order and he won't lift it until he's certain it won't cost the state any federal money.

Reporter Joe Sonka contributed to this story.

 Deborah Yetter at dyetter@courier-journal.com or 502-582-4228. Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/subscribe