Madison County vaccine

People line the sidewalks outside the Perkins Building on Thursday as Madison Countians received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. 

FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky will ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations by partnering with Kroger to create inoculation centers that will expand the groups of people receiving shots, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday.

Renewal of the state's partnership with the grocery store chain — which played a pivotal role in expanding coronavirus testing — came as Kentucky eclipsed 3,000 virus-related deaths. Beshear called it an “awful milestone” as he announced 51 new COVID-19 deaths statewide.

The Kroger partnership will lead to high-volume, drive-thru vaccination centers being set up statewide starting the first week of February, he said.

“This is a very exciting announcement that’s going to help us truly do more and do better with vaccinations,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference.

The state will start announcing vaccination locations in late January, said Transportation Secretary Jim Gray, who will oversee the vaccine distribution project. A website and hotline will be available for people to find out when they're eligible to receive the shots and to make appointments, he said.

Gray said everyone would have their turn, but asked for patience with the rollout.

“While we're doing our best to make getting your vaccine as simple and seamless as possible, this is going to take some time,” Gray said. “Our system relies on the speed of the vaccine manufacturers and releases from the federal government.”

The drive-thru centers will expand access to the vaccinations to everyone through the third tier, which includes people 60 and older, anyone older than 16 with high-risk medical conditions and anyone deemed an essential worker.

The top tier for vaccinations includes health care workers plus residents and staff at long-term care centers. The next tier targets emergency responders, K-12 school workers and people 70 and older.

In a sign that the vaccination pace is already accelerating, all K-12 school employees wanting the vaccine are expected to have received their first shot by early February, Beshear said. The state had previously hoped to only start vaccinations for school employees by early February.

Beshear somberly noted that the latest 51 virus-related deaths raised the total statewide death count from the pandemic to at least 3,042.

“Please think about these families," he said. "Think about the toll this has taken. Please let's do what it takes to defeat this virus.”

Beshear also continued to plead with people to wear masks and follow other health guidelines to combat the spread of the virus.

“We are suffering more casualties than most wars we've ever fought in,” he said. “Let’s treat it like it.”

The state reported 4,084 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, down from the same day a week ago, Beshear said. Total virus cases surpassed 317,000. More than 1,600 virus patients are hospitalized in Kentucky and 409 are in intensive care, he said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.

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