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COVID adds another layer of concern for Kentucky's tornado survivors


In western Kentucky, thousands of people lost their homes in those recent tornadoes. Now the omicron surge means it's harder for them to find safe temporary shelter. NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Sherry Watts and her family came to Pennyrile State Park yesterday with one simple desire.

SHERRY WATTS: We just needed a hot breakfast basically, something other than Pop-Tarts or doughnuts, you know (laughter)? So we headed down here for a hot breakfast.

MCCAMMON: Watts says she and her husband and son lost their home in nearby Dawson Springs. They've been able to avoid group shelters by living in a camper on their property. But Watts says she's concerned about her nephew, who recently tested positive for COVID.

WATTS: He's OK. He's - I mean, basically flu symptoms, I guess - fever, chills, stuff like that. But he is sick.

MCCAMMON: Watts says that positive test came after he huddled in a public shelter with seven other people as the tornadoes tore through the area on December 10.

WATTS: And there was eight different people. So now five of those eight are positive for COVID. So, yeah, it's a little concerning.

MCCAMMON: The specter of COVID that hangs over everything these days adds another layer of complexity and concern for people dealing with the aftermath of one of the most devastating storms in Kentucky history. The American Red Cross says it's monitoring staff and shelter residents for symptoms and spacing out families in group settings.

At Pennyrile, one of several state parks hosting displaced people, there are hand sanitizer stations and signs everywhere with reminders to wear masks. About 150 people are staying in cabins and private rooms, and park officials say they're taking precautions to try to make group gatherings, like meals, safer.

ANDY KASITZ: When you're going through the food line, you have to wear gloves. You use sanitizer. Every - indoors is mask. And if you notice today, a majority of them wear masks outside.

MCCAMMON: Andy Kasitz is a state park administrator. He says the pandemic is a factor, but many people here in western Kentucky are more focused on urgent needs.

KASITZ: I think the priority in people's most mind is to get back to some type of normalcy. You know, let me find clothes. And maybe COVID has taken a back burner.

MARCHETTA UNDERWOOD: Obviously, that's the last thing I thought about, but that's - we have to be concerned about that, too. It adds to the pile.

MCCAMMON: When I met Marchetta Underwood yesterday, she showed me a picture of her flattened apartment, which looked like a pile of rubble. She says she's sore and overwhelmed but grateful to have somehow survived and to have a comfortable room to stay in here at the park. She's trying to avoid getting sick while also trying to figure out what's next.

UNDERWOOD: Masks, lot of hand-washing. I try to stay to my room or - I'm having to run around trying to find a place to live. That's - I had to go meet with the FEMA inspector this morning. But other than that, I'm just trying to, you know, stay to the room and not be around a lot of people.

MCCAMMON: Governor Andy Beshear confirmed Kentucky's first omicron case in a tweet a few days ago. Speaking yesterday during a visit to the state park, Beshear said officials are trying to manage both crises at once.

ANDY BESHEAR: That's why we opened up places like Pennyrile, where we can get people their own rooms and their own space. Certainly, we're here outdoors today. And we're doing what I think we all do. We're trying to get everybody vaccinated. We wear masks when appropriate. But we try to manage it in a way to where we can also live our lives and be there for people.

MCCAMMON: But with a new COVID variant spreading quickly, being there for people may also mean keeping some distance.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Dawson Springs, Ky.


Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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