How high will Kentucky’s coronavirus peak be?

Kentucky's capitol, lit up green to remember those who have died of COVID-19, and their families.

As Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has rolled out more information on the modeling the state is using to plan for what it sees as a peak in the COVID-19 pandemic in the state somewhere around early May (sooner in some projections), several have written to me wondering about the math.

I’m not a statistician. I’m not an epidemiologist. But there is one number in Kentucky that sticks out to me – the number of deaths.

First, some other numbers.

As of Monday, Kentucky was reporting 70 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Beshear says he is trying to increase Kentucky’s hospital bed capacity from a starting point of 18,500 to 23,000 or even 25,000, looking at options for converting parts of the Fairgrounds for hospital use, along with the football practice facility at the University of Kentucky.

The questions are these: With fewer than 100 hospitalized right now, will the expected peak spike Kentucky’s need beyond its current capacity? Is the increase going to be that dramatically steep here? Could we possibly need that many beds?

The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. My own gut, looking around the country and what the worst-case situation – New York – is experiencing in terms of hospital beds projected and actually needed, would tell me that we’re not going to need more than we have. New York has plenty of beds, but needs more equipment. California, another hotspot, was in sufficient shape that it was able to lend 500 ventilators to the national stockpile on Monday.

But every place is different, and Kentucky is a little different in this – we sit near the bottom annually in state rankings for health of our population. And with a virus that attacks these underlying health issues to cause major problems, we are a state that is ripe for a great many adverse reactions when the peak does come.

And that’s where the number of deaths comes in. Kentucky had confirmed at least 1,008 cases as of Monday. It also reported 59 total deaths from the virus.

So while Kentucky ranks low in COVID-19 cases per 1 million in population (46th nationally), it ranks much higher (21st nationally) in deaths per 1 million population. Some of that might be a lack of testing, but some of it is these underlying health conditions.

Another statistic (hang with me). Taking a half-dozen cities around the region, Louisville ranks second in deaths per 1,000 in population, according to a New York Times analysis of data over the past four weeks.

  1. Indianapolis .035
  2. Louisville .022
  3. Nashville .015
  4. Lexington .014
  5. Cincinnati .009
  6. Columbus .007

It just bears watching. Kentucky, with high levels of diabetes and heart disease and other underlying health conditions, could be a pile of kindling waiting for the virus to catch on. It underscores the importance of everyone respecting the virus, taking seriously the social distancing guidelines, and doing everything possible to avoid spreading the disease.

One last look, at the CDC-used model that is most easily accessible to the public, from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, projects Kentucky with 1,750 COVID-19 deaths through August 4. Its projection for Monday was 11 deaths in Kentucky. The state had 14. Its projection for state deaths through yesterday was 66. Kentucky had 59.

That model has changed in the past day, revising national expectations downward. Kentucky’s projection, however, has gone up in recent days. And the situation with Indiana is similar.

All of this is just to say that care still needs to be taken. Our low number of hospitalizations is encouraging. The number of cases in Kentucky has been flat over the past several days. Let’s just hope it stays that way.

Now let’s end on a positive.

JODY DEMLING UPDATE. Jody has been on a ventilator since Friday, and will spend at least a couple more days in sedation with COVID-19, but all signs are very encouraging. His inflammation continues to decrease. His ventilator settings have been able to come down. And over the next couple of days doctors will adjust his medications to slowly wake him up, in preparation of taking him off the ventilator.

All of the many thoughts and prayers for him from around the city and country are much appreciated by his family.

I want to mention him here because many in Louisville have followed him or met him or know him. (Jody knows everybody.) I think it’s fair to have every expectation that Jody will be one of those who beats the virus, recovers, and leaves the hospital.

But his experience has been a frightening one, not just for him, I’m sure, but for his family and friends. This is no ordinary flu. Jody has been in a life-threatening situation.

Though we often write about numbers with this pandemic. It is not about numbers. It is about people, and keeping as many of them as healthy as possible.