A House committee adopted a ban on statewide mask orders in a 15-5 vote Tuesday, the first day of a special legislative session dealing with emergency measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The measure was added to a lengthy draft of a bill dealing with COVID-19 testing, treatment, vaccines and other measures Republican lawmakers who control the legislature are proposing during an ongoing surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser, a Taylor Mill Republican, said the bill, if adopted, would bar Gov. Andy Beshear from issuing any "blanket mask mandate" as he had previously done during the pandemic.
Rather, local governments and businesses would decide whether to require masks, said Moore, chairwoman of the House Health and Family Services committee, who presented House Bill 2.
"All we're doing here is saying the statewide mask mandate is null and void," Moser said. "The orders will be decided upon at a local level."
Beshear has already said he lacks the authority to issue a statewide mask mandate under a recent state Supreme Court decision upholding broader authority the General Assembly gave itself this year or he would have issued one during the current surge.
HB 2 also limits constraints on visits to nursing homes, calls for more COVID-19 testing and vaccine access and allows temporary expanded duties for paramedics in hospitals and nursing homes.
Most of the changes would last through January 2022, when lawmakers could revisit them in a regular legislative session with the exception of the ban on mask mandates, which lasts through June 1, 2023.
Hospital and nursing home representatives had asked for more latitude in using workers in expanded roles to deal with acute staffing shortages, especially among nursing staff. Under HB 2, the paramedics would work under supervision of medical staff.
The bill would block lockdowns of nursing homes — bans on visitors ordered by the Beshear administration in the early months of the pandemic before vaccines were available and the virus was tearing through many long term care centers.
It says that visits from "an essential compassionate care visitor" including a family member, guardian, outside caregiver, friend or volunteer must be allowed.
Moser said the family member could select the visitor, noting that some residents in the past "suffered greatly because they didn't have interaction with their family members."
Facilities would still have to comply with federal safety guidelines, Moser said.
HB 2 also calls for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to "develop strategies to urge the public to get vaccinated for COVID-19" including public services announcements and partnerships with athletes, coaches, doctors, nurses and others.
The Beshear administration for months has been campaigning for more Kentuckians to get vaccinated through public appeals, enlisting public figures, making social media pitches and even a sweepstakes for $1 million and free education at a public college.
So far, about 55% of people in Kentucky have had at least a first shot of the vaccine.
The bill also directs the Beshear administration to "significantly increase" vaccine availability in local doctors' offices.
That was proposed last week at a hearing by Dr. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester Republican and chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
"We've got to find a away to make it easier to get it in doctors' offices," said Alvarado, speaking at a joint meeting of the House-Senate Health, Welfare and Family Services Committee.
While vaccines are widely available through clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, fewer physician's office have them, in part because of the ultra-cold storage requirements for the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, but also because of federal paperwork requirements, Moser said.
The bill also calls for creation of sites to administer "monoclonal antibodies" used to treat COVID-19 in all 15 Area Development Districts of the state, though such treatment with the drug Regeneron already is offered throughout Kentucky.
Most of Kentucky's nearly 100 acute care hospitals already offer the Regeneron treatment, though it varies based on demand, staffing and other constraints, according to the Kentucky Hospital Association.
They already are available in all 15 of the development regions, said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky's public health commissioner.
"A substantial number of patients are receiving them in Kentucky," Stack said.
The treatment, usually administered intravenously, is meant to try to prevent a patient's illness from worsening and requiring hospitalization by providing them with antibodies against viral infection.
Public health officials have repeatedly stressed that the best precaution is for people to try to avoid getting COVID-19 by getting vaccinated.
Norton Healthcare said efforts to treat patients with Regeneron monoclonal antibodies, which are synthesized antibodies similar to those a person develops after getting a vaccine, have been successful.
Dr. Joseph Flynn, chief administrative officer of Norton Medical Group and physician-in-chief at Norton Cancer Institute, said recently the system had treated about 3,000 people with the antibodies so far, averaging about 70 per day. Of the 3,000 treated, Flynn said 10% have needed to be admitted to the hospital.
High risk patients include those who are unvaccinated, pregnant, overweight, diabetic or have kidney disease, cancer, asthma and more. COVID-19 patients should talk to their doctor about their qualifications for Regeneron, Flynn said.