MURRAY – Kentucky has resumed administration of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, and with vaccination numbers continuing to increase, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Monday he was lifting the mask mandate for outdoor events with 1,000 people or fewer.

Beshear said in Monday’s press conference that 1,726,346 Kentuckians have received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. He also said that as of Tuesday, based on recent studies and Kentucky’s increasing number of vaccinations, the statewide mask mandate would no longer be in effect when people are outside at events or venues with 1,000 people or fewer.

“What this means is at events like the Kentucky Derby, you still have to wear a mask, but if you’re at a backyard barbecue, your community pool or an outdoor wedding, you’re not required to wear a mask,” said Gov. Beshear. “We hope this is a relief for people, and remember, the state will be able to lift even more restrictions once the 2.5 million vaccine Team Kentucky Vaccination Challenge is reached.”

Masks are still recommended at outdoor events with 1,000 people or fewer, and the mask mandate is still in effect when Kentuckians are indoors or at any outdoor event with more than 1,000 people, Beshear said. Kentuckians may visit vaccinemap.ky.gov to find a COVID-19 vaccination site near where they live, he said.

Ever since reopening to students in the fall, Murray State University has required masks everywhere on campus, including outdoors. The university emailed a statement Tuesday afternoon to the campus community about the governor’s announcement.

“In light of this recent announcement, Murray State University will no longer be requiring our students, faculty, staff and campus visitors to wear a face mask while outdoors but all other health and safety protocols remain in effect,” the statement said. “All indoor face mask requirements will remain unchanged at this time, including but not limited to, requiring individuals to wear a face mask in the classroom and inside public buildings. As a reminder, there is currently a face mask mandate in place by the Commonwealth of Kentucky for individuals in indoor spaces and at events with over 1,000 in attendance. The university will continue to adhere to that mandate.

“We do ask that everyone continue to comply with all other Racer Safe and Healthy Guidelines, including but not limited to, wearing a face mask indoors and maintaining six-foot social distancing when both outside and inside. … Additionally, we highly encourage any member of our campus community who has not yet received a vaccine to please sign up for one at one of our community’s many retail locations, such as Walgreens and Walter’s Pharmacy, or any additional healthcare location.”

Also at Monday’s press conference, Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined on Sunday that the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccine may be used in individuals 18 and older as outlined in the current FDA Emergency Use Authorization. All Kentucky vaccination sites may now resume use of the J&J vaccine with the inventory already in their possession. The CDC and FDA also released more detailed guidance on resumption of the J&J vaccine on Tuesday. Currently, new J&J vaccine shipments into Kentucky are not anticipated until the week of May 3, Stack said.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky paused use of the vaccine on April 13 after the CDC reported six women between the ages of 18 and 48 developed “a rare and severe type of blood clot” after getting vaccinated. Stack said Monday that 15 total cases of thrombosis-thrombocytopenia syndrome were ultimately reported in women between the ages of 18 and 59, with 13 being in women younger than 50.

“There was no association found with birth control pills or any other sort of medications," Stack said during the press conference. “There was not a clear pattern, other than the gender association and relative youth of the individuals.”

Jerry Penner, CEO of Murray-Calloway County Hospital, said he was glad administration of the J&J vaccine had been reinstated so that there would be more vaccines available for everyone.

“I think we’re fortunate that we’ve opened that back up; it gives people another option out there,” Penner said.

“The risk of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not much greater than getting that (type of blood clot) in the general population; you’re looking at one in a million,” said Dr. Bob Hughes, founder of Village Medical Primary Care and chief medical officer for Murray State’s Student Health Services. “So the risk (of not getting vaccinated) far outweighs the benefits. (Another) concern is that hopefully that doesn’t scare people away from the other vaccines, even though the risk of the Johnson & Johnson is one in a million. But we have plenty of Moderna and Pfizer, not only locally, but in the state of Kentucky. We just need people to get vaccinated.”

The CDC announced last week that half of American adults were now fully or partially vaccinated. According to Our World in Data, 231 million doses of vaccine had been given in the U.S. as of the beginning of this week. A total of 140,969.663 Americans (42.9%) had received at least one dose, and 95,888,088 had been fully vaccinated, amounting to 29.2% of the population. Along with the state’s new guidance on masks at small outdoor gatherings, Penner said he expected to see more restrictions lifted as the level of protection among the population continues to rise.

“I think guidance will change as we learn more about the virus, and certainly outdoors gives opportunities for people to potentially get back together once again,” Penner said. “It’s nice (for small outdoor gatherings to be possible) with the protection we’ve already been given with the vaccine, and the more people that take it, the more opportunities you’ll have for more gatherings.

“I think it’s positive, and we’re starting to do similar things here at the hospital. Some of the mandates with the state are changing, and that includes some of our pre-surgical testing. Because of the penetration and the number of people that have been vaccinated, it’s just given us some latitude to do some things and kind of return back to some level of normalcy.”

Hughes said the outdoor setting is the key to the lifting of that particular part of the mask mandate, since the biggest risk factor is still being in an enclosed space – such as inside a vehicle – with someone who has not been vaccinated. Hughes said the rate of new vaccinations is starting to slow, so he wants to continue to encourage people to get a shot.

“The governor’s number – what they thought would potentially mean herd immunity – is 2.5 million,” Hughes said. “We’ve got the vaccine to do it; as of last Wednesday, we had 550,000 doses in Frankfort, so it’s just a matter of getting people to take it and get away from all these (beliefs in) hoaxes and what they’ve heard or fear of getting it done. … Because if people want to get rid of the masks and see businesses flourish, the key is the vaccine.”

As the pandemic continues, more studies are being conducted on how the coronavirus spreads, and new data leads to new government guidelines like Kentucky’s latest mask recommendations, Hughes said. He said the public should not see changing guidelines as a reason to doubt the advice of epidemiologists and other health professionals.

“Science is always an evolution, and the wisdom of that is that as the evidence changes, you change your position,” Hughes said. “Now, if you lock yourself into a position irrespective of the science and facts, then you’re going to suffer from that.”

Hughes said he hoped more young people would get the vaccine. Using recent news out of Michigan as an example, he said a lot of the people getting sick there are 50 or younger. He said Michigan children are being hospitalized with COVID-19 at an alarming rate, while many older people are currently protected by the vaccine.

“The people that have been vaccinated and the older population are looking really good in terms of protection, but it’s that 16-49 demographic that we’re worried about,” Hughes said. “And (new cases) could take off in Kentucky. We’ve done better than our border states, but at the same time, there’s no walls between the states. This is airborne and we could see things happening here that are happening in other countries around the world.”

The Ledger & Times requested comment from Kim Paschall, interim director of public health for the Calloway County Health Department, but she did not respond before deadline Tuesday.