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Opioid settlement money poised to come to Kentucky

A major settlement reached with the nation’s leading pharmaceutical distributors leaves Kentucky poised to receive more than $460 million to combat the opioid epidemic that has ravaged several communities.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron discussed the potential impact of the settlement in an interview Tuesday with the Daily News.

“The money that will flow into Kentucky is not a magic elixir, it’s not going to solve the opioid epidemic by itself, but it’s going to be a significant down payment on what we need in Kentucky to help restore hope, bring rehabilitation and break the cycles of addiction,” said Cameron, who was in Bowling Green for a meeting of the Kentucky Search Warrant Task Force at Western Kentucky University.

Announced in July, the settlement resolves thousands of lawsuits brought by state and local governments across the country against pharmaceutical distributors Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen as well as Johnson & Johnson, which manufactured and marketed opioids.

The lawsuits accused the companies of fueling the opioid epidemic by funneling medications into pharmacies that submitted suspicious drug orders.

The distributors denied wrongdoing but agreed to settle all claims for $26 billion.

Kentucky is due to receive its portion of the settlement funds from the three major distributors over an 18-year period, while money from Johnson & Johnson will flow into the state over a period of nine years.

Cameron said county and city governments are going through the process of reviewing the terms of the settlement, but a framework is in place to disburse the funds.

Kentucky House Bill 427, which passed both houses of the General Assembly before being signed by Gov. Andy Beshear, calls for local governments to receive half of the proceeds from the settlement, with the state receiving the other half, which will be managed by the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission.

Members of the commission will be determined in the near future, and it is anticipated that the commission will comprise a representative from the attorney general’s office, a member of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, someone representing overdose victims, health professionals and state lawmakers among others.

The state commission can use its portion of the settlement money to reimburse prior expenses or fund any of several projects related to various treatment and recovery services, supportive housing, employment training to people in recovery, and support for certified counselors and mental health providers among other uses.

“Abatement is a big term, but at the end of the day it means how can we get dollars back into our counties and cities and other statewide projects ... to help chip away at this epidemic,” Cameron said. “Anything we can do, whether it’s housing, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s education, helping children in terms of prevention or helping with the trauma that comes along perhaps with parents who are addicted, those are all going to be facets that will help tackle this problem.”

Nationwide, the number of U.S. opioid overdose deaths rose by nearly 30% in 2020 to around 93,000, the highest number recorded in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Kentucky, 1,964 people died from drug overdoses last year, a 49% increase from 2019, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

The drug control policy office’s annual overdose report asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted routines for people in recovery and contributed to a sense of isolation and economic concerns, resulting in a higher number of deaths.

An opioid was involved in 90% of all deaths, according to the report, and 25 deaths were recorded last year in Warren County.

Against this backdrop, Cameron said the state badly needed the money from the settlement.

“This won’t be an end-all, be-all, but this will be a significant step in the right direction to help curtail those numbers and help bring some healing to our communities,” Cameron said.

Census: Relief programs staved off hardship in COVID crash

WASHINGTON – Massive government relief passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic moved millions of Americans out of poverty last year, even as the official poverty rate increased, the Census Bureau said Tuesday.

The official poverty measure showed an increase of 1 percentage point in 2020, with 11.4% of Americans living in poverty, or more than 37 million people. It was the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines.

But the Census Bureau’s supplemental measure of poverty, which takes into account government benefit programs and stimulus payments, showed that the share of people in poverty dropped significantly after the aid was factored in.

The supplemental poverty measure was 2.6 percentage points lower than its pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Stimulus payments moved 11.7 million people out of poverty, and expanded unemployment benefits kept 5.5 million from falling into poverty. Social Security continued to be the nation’s most effective anti-poverty program.

“This really highlights the importance of our social safety net,” said Liana Fox, chief of the Census Bureau’s poverty statistics office.

That finding is likely to resonate in a divided Congress, where President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan faces uncertain prospects. Two anchors of last year’s COVID response – enhanced unemployment benefits and a federal eviction moratorium – have expired, adding to concerns.

Census Bureau reports released Tuesday cover income, poverty and health insurance. They amount to an annual checkup on the economic status of average Americans. They are based on surveys and analysis.

During last year’s economic collapse, employers shed 22.4 million jobs in March and April, the sharpest decline since records began in the 1940s. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits topped 6 million in a single week in April, by far the highest on record. Since then, the economy has recovered three-quarters of those lost jobs, but the U.S. still has 5.3 million fewer positions than before the pandemic.

A basic indicator of the economic health of the middle class registered the shock.

The median – or midpoint – household income decreased by 2.9% to $67,521 in 2020. The median is a dividing line, with half of American households having lower incomes and the other half, higher. It was the first statistically significant drop in that measure in nearly a decade.

Driving the erosion, the Census Bureau found that the number of people with earnings from work fell by about 3 million as the number of full-time year-round workers contracted by some 13.7 million.

Below those toplines there was a story of haves and have-nots.

People who held on to steady year-round jobs saw an increase in economic well-being, with their median earnings rising 6.9% after adjusting for inflation. People on the lower rungs of the job market, those with part-time jobs or trying to stay afloat in the gig economy, lost ground as median earnings decreased 1.2% for workers overall.

Despite concerns that the pandemic would make millions more Americans uninsured, health coverage held its own in 2020, the Census Bureau found. More than 91% of Americans had insurance, but 28 million were uninsured.

But Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation said the numbers revealed some glaring exceptions. For example, 38% of poor working age adults in the dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid were uninsured. Biden’s budget bill would provide a workaround for more than 2 million caught in that coverage gap.

“It would be hard to find a group that struggles more to get access to affordable health care,” Levitt said.

Congress passed five COVID-19 response bills last year, totaling close to $3.5 trillion and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. This year, Congress pushed through Biden’s nearly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Its effects are not reflected in the Census Bureau reports.

Though some of the federal aid last year was delayed for reasons from wrangling over costs to problems with distribution, on the whole it insulated American families from economic disaster that would have compounded the public health crisis. Some groups were left out, such as people not legally authorized to be in the country.

As Americans fought over measures such as mask wearing and closing down businesses and community life, lawmakers of both parties were motivated to take dramatic action, said economist Bruce Meyer, a University of Chicago expert on poverty.

“You had Democrats who were very focused on helping those who were unemployed and hurting, and you had Republicans who were willing to do many things to help the reelection of their president, so there was a confluence of incentives, or of desires, by politicians on both sides,” he said.

On a historical note, the Census Bureau reports documented that government aid was much more effective in preventing poverty last year than in the aftermath of the 2008-09 Great Recession, a decade earlier. Even after accounting for government programs, the supplemental measure of poverty rose in 2010, while it fell sharply in 2020. That reflects how much more financial juice was provided by Congress and the Trump administration in 2020, compared with then-President Barack Obama’s roughly $900 billion package in 2009.

That’s relevant to the current debate over Biden’s social infrastructure plan, said public policy analyst Robert Greenstein of the Brookings Institution think tank.

“For people who have a cynical view that nothing much government does works effectively, particularly on the poverty front, it will be harder to maintain that view,” said Greenstein, who founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of low-income people.

Among other provisions, the Biden economic plan extends tax credits for families with children, which is seen as a strategy for reducing childhood poverty and its long-term consequences.

BGISD continues universal masking

Citing a steady decline in COVID-19 cases and quarantines in its schools since implementing universal masking, Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields asked the district’s school board to continue the requirement, a recommendation the body unanimously approved Monday.

“I think, right now, this is the best decision for our school district because the ultimate goal is to keep kids in school,” Fields told reporters after the meeting, which was attended by only a handful of masking supporters.

Dr. Mark Lowry, a local pediatrician with nearly 30 years of experience treating children, was among three individuals who spoke during the board meeting’s public comment period. All three supported continuing the masking requirement.

Lowry took the opportunity to debunk several myths about masking.

“As someone who has studied and practiced medicine for almost 30 years, there are just a couple of things that I can say unequivocally and without hesitation: Masks do not cause you to have decreased oxygen. Masks do not cause you to inhale too much carbon dioxide. Masks don’t trap pathogens next to your face. They work to prevent transmission of this disease and others both as the wearer and as the person who might have it, exhaling it out onto your neighbors,” Lowry said.

“I can think of no reason why we shouldn’t have children masking in school” when they are in such close proximity to one another for extended periods of time, Lowry said.

Another local pediatrician, Dr. Elizabeth Sternberg, echoed that sentiment.

Drawing on her experience treating sick children throughout the pandemic, Sternberg said “there is no way a school could stay open long-term without masking.”

The Bowling Green school board took up the masking question after last week’s special legislative session in Frankfort, during which lawmakers placed the decision into the hands of local school boards.

Under Senate Bill 1, which lawmakers passed Thursday, a school masking mandate backed up by an emergency regulation from the Kentucky Department of Education will be rendered unenforceable by Wednesday. School districts are required to submit their operation plans to the KDE – for informational purposes only – and make that plan publicly available on their websites.

Defending the decision on universal masking, Fields told reporters after the meeting Monday that the district has seen its COVID-19 positives and quarantines decline since implementing a mask mandate.

Fields also noted that the requirement will be up for board review on a monthly basis. His recommendations to the board on that issue will be subject to how well the district is doing with cases and quarantines, he said.

“Our plan to revisit will be monthly,” he said. “I think it’s very reasonable that I should present what the data looks like.

“Hopefully, over the last 18 months, we’ve earned the trust of our parents and our community,” Fields said. “You know, we’re just trying to make decisions that keep kids in school. It’s not about anything other than that.”

Fields said the school district was caught off guard by how rapidly the delta variant of the coronavirus can spread, explaining the district’s decision to initially start the school year mask-optional.

“We’re not going to let down our guard. I think we all learned a hard lesson this summer. At least, this superintendent right here did. … I think we all kind of thought we were through the worst of this.”

Board members also took up a new property tax rate, opting to set the new rate at 84.2 cents per $100 of real property and 84.5 cents per $100 of personal property.

The motor vehicle tax rate will remain the same as last year: 60.2 cents per $100 of property value.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Local research survey: COVID vaccines are safe

A research project from Med Center Health, Western Kentucky University and the UK College of Medicine’s Bowling Green campus found COVID-19 vaccines were safe and closely mirrored results found in clinical trials.

The project was conducted through the Western Kentucky Heart and Lung/Med Center Health Research Foundation and surveyed nearly 5,000 people from the area who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Results not only confirmed the vaccines’ safety, but Med Center Health Vice President of Corporate Support Services Dr. Melinda Joyce said most people who were surveyed experienced no symptoms or mild symptoms.

“I think what probably stood out to me the most is that the information we have from the clinical trials was validated from the study we did here in southcentral Kentucky. We did not see anything different,” Joyce said. “There is still a concern that the vaccine came to market too quickly. So when we had the study here and it showed the same results, hopefully it brings comfort to those who were having those concerns.”

She said more than 19,000 text reminders were sent to potential respondents in the area with about 4,825 participated in the survey.

The survey also had the following conclusions:

  • individuals receiving Moderna had more symptoms than the individuals receiving Pfizer, but they were still mild.
  • most people reported side effects didn’t interfere with their daily activities and, if they did, that interference lasted about 1 to 1.5 days.
  • people overwhelmingly said they received the vaccine to protect themselves and others.

The survey also found people who had been COVID positive before vaccination tended to have more side effects with the first dose, but the side effects were still minimal.

Joyce said that result was expected due to COVID-19 already preparing those immune systems for the first dose. In fact, these individuals didn’t have as many side effects with the second dose.

“When we move into the use of boosters in the future, that may be something we see with them,” she theorized. “Possibly, those who get boosters will not get as many side effects. That’s something to consider and watch for moving forward.”

Initial information on the survey was sent out May 5 to individuals who had been administered their shots through Med Center Health. The survey closed June 21.

With the corporation primarily using the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, individuals who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were excluded from the survey’s results due to their low number.

Joyce said the most common side effects from the vaccines were mild soreness at the injection site, fatigue, muscle ache, headache, chills and redness at the injection site. Particularly, sore arm soreness was the most reported symptom.

“Overall, I was pleased that we didn’t see any difference from clinical trials,” she said. “It was a true collaborative effort, and it was an exciting way to be able to conduct a research project. This can make a difference in people getting vaccinated.”

To date, about 91,766 doses of COVID-19 vaccine has been administered throughout Med Center Health’s sites, with 80,372 of those given at The Medical Center at Bowling Green.

Joyce said Med Center Health is currently seeing 60 to 90 individuals seeking the vaccine daily.

Eligible people ages 12 and up wanting the vaccine can walk in during regular business hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at the Medical Center’s Urgentcare clinic or they can call or text COVID to 270-796-4400 to make an appointment.