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DeWine: Deciding who gets Ohio's few vaccines is 'gut-wrenching'

The bottom line is there's simply not enough vaccine for all Ohioans right now.
Mike DeWine 01212021
Gov. Mike DeWine during the state's coronavirus update on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

CEDARVILLE — During his news briefing Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine mentioned he receives messages from Ohioans, making the case for why certain groups should be prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

There's no dearth of groups to consider: teachers, the elderly, people with underlying conditions, parents of immunocompromised children, health care workers, essential workers — the list is endless. 

Deciding who to prioritize is "gut-wrenching," DeWine said. 

But the bottom line is there's simply not enough vaccine for everyone right now, said Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff.

"Our strategy is to focus on the Ohioans with greatest risk of dying," said Vanderhoff. "That doesn't mean we don't think there are other people in Ohio who are very worthy of getting the vaccine."

Bumpy start for vaccines

This week Ohio started vaccinating the 2.2 million people in Phase 1B.

Ohio received only about 100,000 doses for this week and expects to receive between 120,000 and 130,000 for next week, DeWine said. 

Setting aside the problem of scarcity, the logistics of the rollout continue to be fraught with devastating incompetencies. 

The Ohio Board of Pharmacy is investigating Columbus vaccine provider SpecialtyRx after it wasted nearly 900 vaccine doses by failing to monitor their storage temperatures, the Columbus Dispatch reported Wednesday. 

ODH suspended SpecialtyRx as a vaccine provider while it investigates the mishandling of the vaccine doses.

"That infuriated me," said DeWine. "It never should have happened."

But, DeWine said he's looking forward to working with the Biden administration. In a letter to President Joe Biden, he outlined the state's most pressing problem: vaccine scarcity. 

The Biden administration has stated its intention to invoke the Defense Production Act to manufacture needed vaccination supplies. DeWine said he is not yet aware that any Ohio companies have been contacted for invocation of the DPA.

Cases and testing

The Ohio Department of health on Thursday reported 7,271 new confirmed and probable cases, an increase from the 21-day average of 7,111 new cases. 

While cases are "still much higher than we want them to be," DeWine said the numbers appear to have flattened out. 

When asked if DeWine's statewide curfew will be extended when it expires on Jan. 23, DeWine emphasized the former half of the statement, noting cases levels are still high enough to require a statewide curfew. 

"Unfortunately, it's going to have to stay. We've seen where the numbers are. We had a downtick for a few days, but we're still at very, very high levels." he said. 

The next step would be to move the curfew back to 11 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., but "we're just not there," DeWine said. He added the discovery of a new, more contagious strain of the virus in Ohio contributed to the decision. 

Meanwhile, as the state continues to bungle the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine, it has simultaneously taken its foot off the gas of COVID-19 testing. 

So far this month, providers have administered an average 11,400 fewer COVID-19 tests per day in Ohio than in December. 

On Wednesday, Youngstown City Health Commissioner Erin Bishop told City Council the health department does not have the resources to rigorously pursue both endeavors — testing and vaccine distribution.

Likewise, Mahoning County Public Health has largely turned contact tracing duties over to the state health department to focus on the county’s vaccine rollout, Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac told Mahoning Matters Wednesday.

Bishop said she hopes the Biden administration follows through on the promise to make it possible to hire more workers. 

Biden’s federal COVID-19 response plan, unveiled Thursday, establishes a national testing board will recommend supports for local and state governments to expand testing, contact tracing and isolation and quarantine, and propose short- and long-term reforms.

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight and it’s going to take months to turn this around,” said Biden, speaking to reporters Thursday. “We will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic.

“Help is on the way.”

The order brings the federal government to bear — for the first time in the yearlong pandemic — in promoting diagnostic, screening and surveillance testing efforts for the novel coronavirus. The focus is increasing access to tests and ensuring safe businesses, schools and travel.

The federal testing board is expected to focus on priority populations like health care and other essential workers, at-risk populations in group living settings and communities where tests are still scarce.

Under the order, the new federal COVID-19 response coordinator — also created in another day-one executive order from President Biden — would work with the U.S. Treasury and other departments to make testing free for everyone, regardless of insurance.

During his Thursday briefing, Biden said he’d ask Congress for the funding to form a public health workforce program called the U.S. Public Health Job Corps, similar to the FEMA Corps program, but focused on training up new contact tracers, state- and local-level virus testers and vaccination outreach.

Rapid tests

DeWine announced the state is partnering with digital health company eMed to provide local health departments with at-home "rapid" COVID-19 antigen tests. 

The $50 million partnership was made possible by federal CARES Act funding. 

The at-home rapid testing will provide results in 15 minutes. eMed provides a video conferencing platform to guide patients through the testing process. The rapid tests will help local health departments respond quickly to outbreaks and hotspots, DeWine siad. 

One reporter asked him if the tests are reliable enough for the investment, after DeWine received a false positive from a rapid test in August

"My false positive was an oddity, I guess," DeWine said. 

Ohio Health Department Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff explained DeWine's experience was extremely rare. People who take the tests should instead be wary of false negatives, Vanderhoff said. 

He would not advise people who receive a negative result to give themselves "a clean bill of COVID health," but, if you have a positive result, "you know what you need to do."

Vanderhoff added, "These tests have come a long way."

Other news

• According to the latest figures Thursday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 849,704 confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus. There have been 17,163 confirmed or suspected cases in Mahoning County; 12,680 in Trumbull County; and 7,263 in Columbiana County.

• Statewide, there have been 10,518 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths, including 337 in Mahoning County; 313 in Trumbull; and 124 in Columbiana. Mahoning County’s 337 reported COVID-19 deaths on Thursday was eighth among Ohio’s 88 counties; Cuyahoga County had the most with 1,068.

• In nearby counties: Stark, 25,443 cases and 429 deaths; Portage, 9,163 cases and 107 deaths; and Ashtabula, 4,493 cases and 73 deaths.

• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday, there were 788,834 COVID-19 cases in the state which have led to 20,128 deaths. The state said the recovery rate is 78 percent. There have been 7,131 confirmed or suspected cases in Mercer County and 206 3deaths; 5,193 cases in Lawrence County and 153 deaths. In Mercer County, 2,828 people have received the first of two vaccination doses and 765 have received both; in Lawrence County, 1,824 have received one dose; 420 have received both.

• The number of Ohioans filing initial claims for unemployment compensation during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic jumped last week. Ohioans filed 42,975 initial jobless claims for the week ending Jan. 16, a 15 percent increase over the previous week, the Department of Job and Family Services said.

Mercy Health is resuming some visitation for hospital patients depending on the unit. Inpatients units, for instance, will allow one visitor per patient, per day from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. or 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The new guidelines exclude friends and family of patients with COVID-19.