According to Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, perhaps the biggest victory to be won in the coronavirus pandemic will be over the people who refuse to follow the rules and recommendations.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily News on Friday, Buchanon discussed the evolution of his thoughts on the virus, his frustrations and how those who refuse to social distance and follow other guidelines make it harder to fight against a virus that has infected more than 350 people in Warren County and caused more than 65,000 deaths nationally.
When it comes to the pandemic’s influence on society, he hears it from various sides.
“I get calls each day saying I have sold out to the propaganda, that it’s a sham and I should be ashamed of myself. Then I get people who are scared to death,” he said. “We don’t need to be in either place.”
He said that dealing with the pandemic has been almost his sole focus for several months now. In his 27 years as Warren County’s judge-executive, “I’ve never been so busy. It’s a fluid situation with so many moving parts,” he said.
The coronavirus eclipses any natural disaster or other crisis he has encountered, he said, and his frustrations stem in a large part because “no one is in control of the situation. The individual is in control.”
He said government and health officials can continually advise people to social distance, practice good hygiene and take other preventive steps, “but if you have 5 percent who think it is a joke or a sham” it frustrates the efforts of the vast majority of Kentuckians who are following the guidelines, he said. “We do have to accept the fact that we are in a global pandemic.”
Buchanon said he has gotten reports of unrelated people carpooling to other counties for work and then returning without quarantining, violating requirements set by Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order.
Buchanon said that while he believes in a person’s constitutional rights, those rights don’t allow anyone “to infringe on the health and safety of everyone else ... it’s frustrating. We do need to get back to work, but we need 100 percent cooperation of citizens,” he said. Otherwise, the virus “will continue to spread.”
A new state testing site opened last week at South Warren High School, where more than 1,000 people have received tests as of Friday.
“We are going to see more positive cases” as a result of the increased testing, but it “will give us a clearer picture” of how widespread the virus is locally, he said.
This fight is one Buchanon did not initially expect to take so seriously. In early March, he said at a health board meeting “I’m far more concerned about the flu than I am about the coronavirus ... The coronavirus is down the list on what I think people should be worried about.”
He said that at the time, there was a belief by some that the virus was soon “going to peak.” The first confirmed Warren County coronavirus case was reported in mid-March. Before that, “it felt like we were dodging the bullet in Warren County. ... We knew less about” the virus in general, he said.
But now, Buchanon is fully on board with calls for masks in public, social distancing and other measures outlined by Beshear and health officials.
He said he understands the desire to reopen the economy, but warned that slacking on safety measures could lead to a new spike in cases and an even more traumatic second shutdown.
He said he foresees the recommendation of wearing masks in public persisting “for probably the next several months. There are people you see every day who are asymptomatic (but who) can spread it. We need to take this seriously.”
The unknown factor regarding any reopening plan is how many people will not follow guidelines – “a few people who aren’t taking it seriously can ruin it for everyone else,” he said.
Beshear has outlined a phased reopening of businesses, with some questioning whether the state is reopening too quickly, since Kentucky cases appear to have plateaued but not yet declined.
“I don’t know that it’s premature,” Buchanon said. “I think we are being cautious.” We have to rebuild our economy, “but also be our brother’s keeper,” he said.
A larger concern for Buchanon is other states reopening at a faster rate than Kentucky and travelers subsequently bringing another surge of cases to southcentral Kentucky.
That’s a fear shared by Barren River District Health Department Director Matt Hunt, who told the Daily News last week he had a similar concern.
The governor’s mantra of “Healthy at Home might become Healthy in Kentucky,” Hunt said.
Looking ahead, Buchanon said minimizing the virus’ effect will take courage and a willingness to make changes.
“We don’t have to live in fear, but we do have to adjust our lives,” he said, and “live a lifestyle that reflects we are in the midst of a global pandemic.”