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Kentucky Governor Encourages Mask Use And Vaccinations As Delta Variant Spreads

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Government officials have begged, pleaded and even bribed Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: This is going to be a special moment, and that's all because she did the right thing. She got vaccinated. She wanted to protect people around her.

SHAPIRO: That's Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announcing a million-dollar reward in his state's vaccine lottery. Now that the delta variant is surging around the country, there's even more pressure to get Americans fully vaccinated. Kentucky's rate remains below the national average at about 45%. And Governor Andy Beshear joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BESHEAR: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Coronavirus cases in your state are surging, as they are in many parts of the country. Last week, Kentucky's positivity rate was close to 9%. The hospitalization rate is up 117%, compared to two weeks ago. So how concerned are you about what's happening right now?

BESHEAR: Well, I'm very concerned. We're dealing with the most aggressive variant that we have seen to date at a time when we have more frustration out there amongst Americans that we've seen probably since the very start. We're seeing hospitalizations go up. We're about to have kids go back to school - in fact, mine went back for the first day today. But we have gotten through so much already. We are strong enough to make it through this. And we've just got to understand that the virus sets the timetable, and while we have to adjust, we know what it takes to win.

SHAPIRO: You say we know what it takes to win. Part of that is wearing masks. And while you've ordered state employees to wear masks, you have said you are not considering a statewide mandate. Why not?

BESHEAR: Well, first, what it takes to win are vaccines, plus masks, for a limited period of time. And while we have tried to set the right example - and we have by going back to masking in state office buildings, where we are in primarily red counties - we haven't looked at a statewide mandate yet, and that's because the effectiveness of anything you put into place is the measure itself times the number of people who will follow it. And so you have to very carefully consider, will that take people who have refused to get vaccinated and make them dig in their heels even further? Or are we starting to see - and we are in Kentucky - a real uptick in vaccinations? In fact, about 34,000 over the last three days combined, when we were looking really at about 6,000 before, during that same period of time. We're not going to take anything off the table, but we've got to try to meet people where they are, ultimately get as many people vaccinated as we can.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about that spike in vaccinations. I mean, these are shots that have been around for months. You've been offering people the chance to win a million dollars if they get the vaccine. What do you think is changing their minds right now?

BESHEAR: Well, we have been offering the million dollars. We've had two drawings, and we have one more. We've also been offering free higher educations to 12- to 17-year-olds. That stopped the overall decline we saw in vaccinations, which was helpful. But, certainly, the delta variant itself is causing an uptick. And I believe we are also seeing actions by private employers, and, certainly, I made my decision on state office buildings as an employer that needs people at work providing critical services. This thing is serious. The delta variant is burning through the unvaccinated. It's putting more people in the hospital. It's putting younger people in the hospital. And so it should be a big enough cause for concern.

SHAPIRO: You say action by private employers is helping to spur people to get vaccinated. Does that include mandates? And is that something that you would ever consider for state employees?

BESHEAR: Well, we're seeing, certainly, mandates from some larger, multinational, but certainly American companies. I think we are seeing it in health care facilities. We had one in Bowling Green, Ky., and I've supported each and every one of those businesses that have come out and ultimately made a mandate. We're not looking at it right now with our state employees, but we may well adjust the frequency that certain folks need to be tested that interact with the public or, especially, congregate care. Think about our mental health hospitals or our veterans' homes, places that we've got to make sure we keep COVID out of.

SHAPIRO: You've referenced the political realities of Kentucky being a very red state. You are a Democrat. As you push people to get vaccinated, do you see a partisan divide on the message that people are getting from state leaders?

BESHEAR: Well, when we look at our state, and if you look at one shot instead of fully vaccinated, we are now over half. If you look at one shot with people over 65, we're at 83% to 86%. It's not as simple as a breakdown of partisanship. A lot of it is where people may get their news. If you get your news exclusively off of Facebook, please, please, call a doctor. Talk to them about this vaccine. Don't rely on something that anybody can lie on. We see it sometimes regionally, but I don't think it breaks down as simply Democrat or Republican, and I don't think we can let it.

SHAPIRO: You're saying this can't be a partisan issue, but at the same time, you're basically acknowledging that a statewide mask mandate might be a good idea if people would follow it, and people aren't going to follow it, and so you're not going to go there. I mean, that - that's acknowledging a political reality, right?

BESHEAR: Well, it's acknowledging that the effectiveness of any step that you take is dependent on how many people are willing to do it at that time. And I think that's more than just politics. I think it's some of the communication that we've seen from the CDC, which I think is making the right advice, but the way it communicates it, I think we all believe could be improved - the whiplash that people feel. You know, you see folks, Democrats or Republicans, that have done the right thing all along - that wore the mask when they needed to, that stayed home, that got vaccinated as quickly as they can - and they're rightfully frustrated about where we are right now, but frustration isn't going to help get anybody else vaccinated. It takes patience and an attempt to understand, even when the decision seems clear. And that calls on us to try to be the very best people we can. But we're trying to save lives.

SHAPIRO: That's Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat.

Thank you for speaking with us.

BESHEAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.