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2 years after Kentucky’s first COVID-19 vaccines, doctors continue to urge people to get vaxxed

Dr. Jason Smith, the recipient of the state's first COVID-19 vaccine, has kept the vial that held his dose of the Pfizer vaccine as a keepsake.
Breya Jones
Dr. Jason Smith, the recipient of the state's first COVID-19 vaccine, kept the vial that held his initial dose of the Pfizer vaccine as a keepsake.

Two years ago, chief medical officer Dr. Jason Smith sat in a chair in front of an array of cameras and microphones at University of Louisville Health and got a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

What makes Smith stand out from the more than 2 million other people in Kentucky who’ve received their vaccine is that he was the first person in the state to receive it.

“I think it was important that you saw people in health care stepping up and saying how important it was for us, how important it would be and you know it was a good start for everything,” Smith said Wednesday.

Smith got his first dose along with four other U of L health physicians that day in 2020.

“I can’t tell you the amount of relief people had when that finally happened because… we were thinking we were gonna be fighting this for years and we finally had something that could begin to stem that tide of what we were seeing and dealing with,” Smith said.

In the two years since Smith got his vaccine, COVID-19 cases worldwide have dropped. The World Health Organization’s COVID-19 dashboard, shows coronavirus cases have dropped across all regions since the start of last year.

On Dec. 14, U of L had just 35 patients who were COVID-positive, seven in the ICU and three on ventilators. During surges, like when the Delta variant took over, U of L Health ran out of open ICU beds.

“We are probably ahead of where we thought we’d be at this time,” Smith said.

Despite these overall improvements in COVID-19 numbers and hospitalizations, there have been recent increases in coronavirus cases in Kentucky following holiday gatherings.

As of Dec. 9, the most recent available data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Kentucky counties are mainly in the low and medium risk categories, with a few counties in the high category. The CDC’s Community Levels metric depicts how much COVID-19 is affecting a given county, based on cases and how many people are hospitalized.

According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of Dec. 12, the daily incidence rate is 15.8 new cases per 100,000 people. This places the statewide positivity rate at 8.63%.

There are only three counties in the state that are considered in the low incidence rate category, which requires there be zero cases.

Most Kentucky counties are categorized as moderate, one to ten cases per 100,000 people, and substantial, ten to 25 cases per 100,000, categories.

There are five counties, in central and eastern Kentucky, in the severe category, reporting more than 25 cases per 100,000.

Healthcare professionals continue to say vaccination is one of the most important steps for curbing COVID-19 spread and severe illness.

“If you are in an at-risk population — older, have health concerns — please get a booster,” Smith said. “It is the best way we can protect someone who has underlying health conditions, it is safe, it is effective, it does a good job at limiting severe disease which is what we're trying to do.”

In Kentucky, 58% of the total population is fully vaccinated – either two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of the Janssen vaccine, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.

A bit more than a third of the total population has received at least one booster. Children younger than 5 are the least-vaccinated age group, while adults 65 and up are the most.

As COVID-19 evolves, it has begun to compound with other endemic viruses like the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Cases of RSV have recently spiked among school-aged children. High rates of flu and RSV have caused school districts in Indiana and Kentucky to close this year.

Health experts expressed concerns about the possibility of “twindemic,” a simultaneous escalation in both COVID-19 and flu before the current school year began. Ahead of holiday gatherings, these concerns shifted to a “tripledemic” — with an RSV surge added to the mix.

Smith said preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses is going to work much as it has in the past.

“It’s the same things your doctors have been telling you since we were little kids treating with colds and flu: Wash your hands, when you feel sick stay away from folks, cover your mouth when you cough,” Smith said.

Smith said all the spread mitigation efforts people were ingrained with growing up need to be taken even more seriously now. If not, he warned, COVID-19 could cause more problems for the year ahead.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.