Kentucky Politics

Updated 5/27/20 with Editors’ Note below

You could say that Kentucky’s junior senator Rand Paul has assumed the position of contrarian-in-chief during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s challenged public health experts and claimed Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is a “dictator” because of restrictions imposed to help slow down the spread of the virus.

Many of Paul’s claims aren’t backed up by science, but in an age when politicians rarely get punished at the ballot box for such behavior, there may be little political risk for him.

Paul raised eyebrows last week for picking a fight with Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a Senate committee hearing.

“As much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all, I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision,” Paul said.

“We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side who are saying there’s not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy.”

Paul, an eye doctor, made several questionable claims during his exchange with Fauci, including a declaration that people who have recovered from coronavirus are immune from catching it again.

But the science just isn’t in on that yet, says Dr. Gonzalo Bearman at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We suspect that there might be some immunity, but in terms of really understanding if someone is immune and if for how long. Unclear. And anyone who states they know is probably misrepresenting the truth,” Bearman said.

Paul is the only U.S. senator who has tested positive for COVID-19. He has recovered and argues that he is now immune from the disease and refuses to wear a mask.

Paul also said the virus has been “relatively benign” outside of New England.

“It’s not to say this isn’t deadly, but really, outside of New England, we’ve had a relatively benign course for this virus nationwide,” Paul stated.

Though the illness certainly hasn’t been as bad in Kentucky as in big cities, as U of L Medical School professor Ruth Carrico points out, anywhere people gather, the virus can spread.

It’s just happening more quickly in big cities.

“This is a disease that is transmitted via the respiratory route and everybody breathes,” Carrico said. “So the closer we get to each other and the more we have the opportunity to come in contact with other people, the greater the risk is for transmission.”

Next, Paul said that there have been fewer deaths from coronavirus than the flu in Kentucky.

That’s just not true.

According to the Kentucky Department for Public Health, by May 9th–the most recent report available–150 people in Kentucky had died from the flu. On that same day, the state announced that 304 Kentuckians had died so far from coronavirus.

The state had more deaths due to the virus and had racked them up more quickly than the flu, a seasonal disease that the state begins counting every year in late September. Kentucky didn’t get its first coronavirus case until March 6th.

Kentucky’s coronavirus deaths took place during a time of unprecedented restrictions on businesses and social activity to try and slow the spread of the COVID-19. A report from the federal government in April estimated that more than 4,000 Kentuckians would have died from coronavirus if restrictions had been abandoned.

Teresa Waters, chair of UK’s Department of Health Management and Policy, says that it’s even likely officials are under-counting the total number of coronavirus deaths.

“First of all, it may have not been clear it was coronavirus early on, second of all many of the people dying of coronavirus have a lot of co-morbid conditions. It’s possible that one of those shows up as the cause of death in some cases,” Waters said.

Finally, during the Senate committee hearing last week, Paul said that because children are dying from coronavirus at a much lower rate there shouldn’t be a national school shut down.

Paul is right that few children have died from coronavirus. And there is a debate among public health experts about whether extending school closures into the fall could cause more harm than good.

Carrico at U of L medical school says that continuing to keep kids at home could have unintended consequences.

“We have an increase in child abuse and domestic partner violence, we have a decrease in an ability for kids to have meals that the normally get in schools, we have an inability for parents to return to work,” Carrico said.

But Paul ignores the fact that while kids aren’t as likely to die from coronavirus, they can still spread it. Experts are also still trying to learn more about a mysterious coronavirus-related illness that has developed in some children recently.

Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political journalist and director of UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says that Paul is not being reasonable when it comes to the coronavirus. And that he should know better.

“When you start disputing a long history of public health practice, in terms of surges when restrictions against infections are relaxed, you are dealing in dangerous business and he shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing,” Cross said.

Paul’s Senate office did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

Paul was first elected 2010 at the beginning of the Tea Party movement. He’s made a name for himself by occasionally taking controversial, spotlight-seizing stances like briefly shutting down the government in 2018, defending President Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin in 2017 and this year announcing, on the Senate floor, the name of the alleged whistleblower who sounded the alarm about Trump’s actions in Ukraine.

And he’s continued to seize the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. He drew fire in March for continuing to work in the Senate and meet with people while waiting to get results of his coronavirus test, which turned out to be positive.

And he was also the only senator to vote against the first coronavirus relief package and said he would have voted against the second one, but he was in quarantine.

Cross said that Republicans should be worried about blow-back from Paul’s rhetoric.

“He is coming close to enabling a pandemic by putting out this kind of information and making people think that it’s not that much to worry about. It’s foolish, it’s dangerous,” Cross said.

Scott Lasley, a Western Kentucky University political science professor and former chair of the Warren County Republican Party, says that at least politically, Paul might not be at risk.

“If you look at his core base being Tea Party voters, it’s going to play there. And that’s a huge chunk of his primary constituency,” Lasley said. “It’s a lot different if you’re saying these things in Massachusetts or New York.”

Paul’s seat will be up for reelection in 2022.

Editors’ note: Kentucky Public Radio reached out to Sen. Rand Paul for an interview on this story twice: once before publication and once after. A spokesperson for Paul didn’t respond. A week after the story published, Paul released a response in the form of an op-ed on the website of Huntington, W.Va.-based iHeartRadio host Tom Roten.

Paul’s response repeats the same, factually-inaccurate claims that prompted the original story. In addition, he mischaracterizes the Kentucky Public Radio story as a “hit job” and “opinion piece” and personally attacks our reporter.

Once again, we will again invite Sen. Paul to discuss his response to the coronavirus pandemic and his statements about it with our journalists. As always, we will correct anything that is factually inaccurate. We stand by our reporting and our reporter. –WFPL Director of News and Programming Erica Peterson and WFPL Managing Editor Michael Edgerly

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.