COVID-19 national emergency declaration ending. Virus is still here.

Kentucky doctors talk preventative screenings, vaccines and more

By: - May 11, 2023 12:48 pm

As the effects of vaccines offered in 2021 have diminished over time, boosters have been shown to strongly protect people against severe COVID-19 and death, and more modestly prevent infection. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE – The national COVID-19 public health emergency declaration expired Thursday, but Kentucky health experts caution that the virus isn’t gone.

Dr. Dan Goulson. Photo provided.

“We have to remember that the disease has not gone away,” said Dr. Dan Goulson, the chief medical officer for CHI Saint Joseph Health. He spoke during a Thursday press conference featuring several Kentucky doctors.

State data showed as of May 4 that all Kentucky counties had a low level of COVID-19 – all were in the green.

“Although the health care emergency is ending today, this is not over for a lot of folks,” said Dr. Ashley Montgomery-Yates, the chief medical officer at UK Good Samaritan Hospital and ICU Recovery Clinic director.

So far this year, 382 people have died with COVID-19, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. More than 18,000 Kentuckians have died with the virus over the last three years.

The people who loved them will need to grieve in the coming years, Montgomery-Yates pointed out. Additionally, there are many people who suffer long term effects of a COVID-19 infection and still battle symptoms.

Many also still deal with mental health fallout from the pandemic, she said, such as post traumatic stress disorder or anxiety.

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Dr. Ashley Montgomery-Yates. Photo provided.

“In general, our society has sort of seen an uptick in a lot of the behavioral health needs both in adult populations and pediatric populations,” Montgomery-Yates said. “I think a lot of the children who have lived through the last few years are going to require some extra love and attention from lots of groups of folks as they move through their adolescence and into adulthood.”

Here’s what to know as the emergency declaration ends:

Transitioning to endemic

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said in March that he hopes the pandemic will end in 2023.

We’re already transitioning, said Dr. Mark Dougherty, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist for Baptist Health Lexington.

“COVID is not going away,” he said Thursday. “This is something that we’re going to have to deal with on an ongoing basis, but we have better tools for dealing with it.”

Doctors know how to prevent the virus and how to treat it, he said. They also have personal protective equipment, which was once in dire need.

“We’re going to see peaks and troughs again,” Dougherty said. “I don’t think we’re gonna get overwhelmed again.”

As part of this transition, Kentucky will only report hospitalization information weekly now. The incidence rate map will stop and vaccination data won’t be updated, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack announced.

Deaths and county data will likely be updated monthly, Stack said.

Dr. Steven Stack

Do vaccines still matter?

Doctors said Kentuckians should keep up with their COVID-19 vaccines and other preventive measures that make sense. That includes masking around high-risk people, who are more susceptible to bad outcomes.

“The vaccine really is what got us out of this pandemic,” said Montgomery-Yates. “I know folks feel like it lasted longer than it should. But never in the history of the modern world have we developed and implemented a vaccine as quickly as this one…”

Vaccines are helping to prevent severe illness, though not infection, Dougherty said.

“In the past, we would see martial arts experts who were in unbelievable physical shape that had no other medical problems and ended up almost dying and stuck on the ventilator for a month at a time,” he said. “We’re not seeing that type of patient anymore.”

The United States Department of Health and Human Services says that folks will still be able to get free vaccinations as well as treatments like Paxlovid and Lagevrio. That access may change once the government stops purchasing shots and treatments, HHS says.

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Stack said free testing is going away, and insurance companies won’t have to cover those. At-home tests will still be sold at pharmacies and other stores.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a once-in-a-century, all-of-humanity event,” Stack said. “Despite the difficulties, the distress and even differences of opinion, Kentuckians pulled together, widely supported each other and showed kindness and caring for each other that inspires and gives hope.”

Preventative care matters

In the worst of COVID-19, many people put off preventative care such as colonoscopies or mammograms. It’s important to catch up on those screenings in the coming months, doctors say.

“We may have COVID under control,” Montgomery-Yates said. “But we also have lots of other things that could rage out of control if we don’t all go get our preventative screenings.”


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.