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Kentucky governor talks of a new era of living with COVID-19

March 2, 2022 GMT
Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at the ground-breaking ceremony of the new 400,000-square-foot, $355 million Tyson Foods plant to be built in the Kentucky Transpark in Bowling Green, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. The facility will produce 100 million pounds of Wright and Jimmy Dean brands of bacon each year and employ approximately 450 workers. (Grace Ramey/Daily News via AP)
Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at the ground-breaking ceremony of the new 400,000-square-foot, $355 million Tyson Foods plant to be built in the Kentucky Transpark in Bowling Green, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. The facility will produce 100 million pounds of Wright and Jimmy Dean brands of bacon each year and employ approximately 450 workers. (Grace Ramey/Daily News via AP)
Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at the ground-breaking ceremony of the new 400,000-square-foot, $355 million Tyson Foods plant to be built in the Kentucky Transpark in Bowling Green, Ky., on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. The facility will produce 100 million pounds of Wright and Jimmy Dean brands of bacon each year and employ approximately 450 workers. (Grace Ramey/Daily News via AP)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Nearly two years into its fight against COVID-19, Kentucky is pivoting into an era of “personal empowerment” with people making their own health decisions as coronavirus cases decline and tools to treat it have grown, Gov. Andy Beshear said Wednesday.

“We believe that we’re moving toward living with COVID but not ignoring COVID,” the Democratic governor said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Beshear, who is running for a second term in 2023, also stoutly defended the restrictions on businesses and gatherings that he imposed early in the pandemic. The governor said his actions saved lives at a perilous time when vaccines were not available.

State Republican Party spokesperson Sean Southard said the governor’s assessment of the next COVID phase was tardy, coming long after most Kentuckians “embraced the reality of living” with it.

The governor lost much of his power to fight the pandemic when the Republican-dominated legislature voted to restrain use of his emergency powers to set virus restrictions. Now, a measure pending in the legislature would end the COVID-related state of emergency on March 7.

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In a Wednesday interview conducted over Zoom, the governor said he’s less concerned now about the potential for another statewide spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, based on the availability of vaccines and therapeutics to combat the virus. Infections soared as the omicron variant spread like wildfire across the state, but cases have dropped steadily in recent weeks.

“Where we’re going now in the pandemic, with cases dropping very quickly, is about in many ways personal empowerment,” he said. “And people being able to have more information than ever before, even at a hyperlocal level, to make the best decisions that they can for their own health, factoring in things like pre-existing conditions or amount of people they’re around on any given day.”

Beshear has faced withering Republican criticism for his handling of the pandemic.

Southard said Wednesday that the governor was trying to “rehab his image” ahead of his reelection campaign. Republicans plan to remind voters that the governor “kept capacity restrictions in place while other states lifted them and gave the state legislature the cold shoulder,” he said.

In his interview, the governor downplayed the national feuding over virus policies, saying he did not see it creating deeper permanent divisions.

“I believe that the narrative out there is ... these two sides battling over things,” the governor said. “But when you look at Kentuckians over 18-years-old, 75% have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine. That is overwhelming.

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“So while I think social media can augment a small group of voices and make them seem larger, the data shows that the vast majority of people who can make their own health care decisions ... have done the right thing, have made the decision to protect themselves and to protect others.”

The pandemic has overshadowed the governor’s term, hitting the state just months after he took office. The statewide death toll from the virus continues to grow, now approaching 14,000.

Beshear said his administration’s response to COVID-19 has consistently been “driven by science.” He faced protests, lawsuits and impeachment petitions over his actions. Armed protesters gathered near the governor’s home in 2020 and hanged a Beshear in effigy in a tree near the State Capitol.

Assessing the next phase of COVID-19, the governor said: “I believe we are moving toward a period where we are able to live with it. I still think it’s possible maybe it doesn’t go away, but a level of immunity reaches a point where it may be something like a shot a year or worst-case scenario, boosters when necessary.”

The governor also floated potential themes as he prepares to run for reelection next year. Beshear remains popular in the state but is likely to face a tough political battle in GOP-trending Kentucky.

“My hope is that whenever that next election comes around, that people — whether they agreed with every decision I’ve made or not — will respect that I was willing to make them,” Beshear said. “And that I was always making them from a good place, trying to put our families and our health and the lives of our loved ones at the forefront.”

Beshear also touted the state’s record performance last year in job creation and private-sector investments. Leading the way was the announcement by Ford and its battery partner that twin battery plants will be built at Glendale, Kentucky. The $5.8 billion project will create 5,000 jobs.

“The reason that I’m running for another term as governor is that I believe that our future is more optimistic, and our potential greater, than at any time in my lifetime,” the governor said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.