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AS WE SEE IT: Stop politicizing the virus

One of the few blessings of the COVID-19 virus, when it first hit, was that it didn’t seem to impact our children.

Adults were getting severely ill. They were going on respirators. They were dying. But our children weren’t getting so sick. They were still contracting the virus. But the effect of COVID-19 on children was minimal. 

Disruptions to school schedules and extracurricular activities were seen as more of a safeguard for the parents, grandparents, and guardians of children than as necessary to protect the lives of our children themselves. 

But the delta variant is changing that trend. 

Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s National Hospital told a public radio audience last week that while doctors have “always seen a rate of hospitalization in children,” because the delta variant is causing an overall increase in the number of infections, that same percentage is now reflected in a growing number of children. 

“In this last surge, we are now filling up our hospital isolation unit beds with children who are sick and have to be hospitalized,” she said. 

Children still account for around 12 to 15 percent of all cases, and three to four percent of all hospitalizations. It’s just that the overall numbers are growing, and that, she said, is enough cause for concern.

While this very real drama is playing out in hospitals across the commonwealth and the nation, and healthcare professionals beg those who can to be vaccinated ,and those who can’t to wear masks, Kentucky’s so-called leaders are playing politics with regulations. 

Governor Andy Beshear, in response to the growing numbers associated with the delta variant, issued a mask mandate for all schools and daycare centers earlier in August. That mandate, which set unrealistic expectations for children as young as two to wear masks, was of course quickly challenged by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. 

Cameron and his Republican colleagues had described Beshear’s earlier mandates as an overreach of his legislative power and passed restrictions on those powers that sat up this inevitable conflict. “The General Assembly (was clear): the governor cannot unilaterally issue executive orders… including a mask mandate,” Cameron’s office said in their legal filing. 

The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed with Cameron, overturning the governor’s mandate. 

Arguments about the overreach of the executive power are a legitimate concern. If the General Assembly wants to put a check on the governor’s powers to act unilaterally, forcing consensus before any action is taken, that isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. 

What could be a bad thing, though, is if political partisanship causes the legislature to reject anything coming from the governor’s office, regardless of intent, simply because it is put forward by a Democrat. 

That appears to be the path that some legislators are heading toward. 

Rather than stating they would consult with medical professionals, and work with the governor when appropriate, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) has put his foot down. 

“There aren’t going to be any more lockdowns or shutdowns,” Thayer told reporters last week. “There’s not going to be a statewide mask mandate.” 

While he did leave an opening to work with the governor, stating, “the governor’s going to have to work with the General Assembly moving forward on some items where we can find agreement,” he was adamant about mandates and lockdowns. 

The problem now is, if it becomes apparent that mask mandates are necessary for children to safely return to school, or for business to safely continue as normal, the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. 

The Democrats could offer them a hand, but the state of partisan rancor in Kentucky, and across the nation, makes it both unlikely for them to reach out, or for the GOP to accept any offered hand. 

In the midst of all this political squabbling, posturing, and positioning, people continue to get sick. 

Schools are being forced to go back to non-traditional instruction, and students – already suffering setbacks from the previous lost school year – aren’t getting the instruction they need. 

Maybe mask mandates are what’s needed to return to some sense of normalcy until the virus has run its course. Maybe they aren’t. 

But those are decisions that should be made in conjunction with advice from medical professionals. They should be based on science and hard data, not whether you wear a donkey or an elephant pin on your lapel. 

Our children deserve better. We need to be better for them. And we need to force our legislators to do better for them too. 

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