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DeWine says he's hamstrung by COVID-19 oversight, boosts doctors' desperate plea for masks in schools

Gov. Mike DeWine, when asked whether he'd consider pushing a school mask mandate through the courts, said he feels it'd create too much confusion. “What the legislature has made clear: If we put up a statewide mandate they could take it off," he said.
Mike DeWine 09142021
Gov. Mike DeWine during his state coronavirus update Tuesday.

[Editor's note: On Wednesday, Sept. 15, following initial publication of this report, East Liverpool City Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ludwig announced the district would begin requiring masks in all buildings on Thursday, Sept. 16.]

COLUMBUS — On Monday night, all the emergency departments in Lucas County stopped taking patients from EMS teams for more than eight hours.

To hospital officials’ knowledge, Monday’s countywide EMS bypass — during which EMS crews can’t deliver patients to full-up hospitals — was the first time that’s happened in decades, said Paula Grieb, chief nursing officer at ProMedia Russell J. Ebeid Children’s Hospital in Toledo. Nearly all of the hospital’s care locations are “being overrun” by sick children, many of whom have contracted COVID-19, she said.

“It’s more than a bit frightening to us. … It speaks to the volume of sick people that are being managed in our systems,” she said during a Tuesday media briefing led by Gov. Mike DeWine on the worsening impact COVID-19 is having on children.

Despite DeWine’s willingness to order Ohio schools to close for in-person learning at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mandate masks for a cautious return to the classroom, he told reporters Tuesday he’s hamstrung by state legislation passed earlier this year — Senate Bill 22, which survived his governor’s veto — in setting a new statewide mask requirement for schools.

“If I could put on a statewide mandate, if the health department could do it, we would do it,” DeWine said. “What the legislature has made clear: If we put up a statewide mandate they could take it off. There is no 30-day waiting period. They could do it right away.”

The governor and the numerous health officials who joined him Tuesday agreed a swiftly struck-down mandate would likely create more confusion for school administrators. Challenging a repeal through the courts could be similarly precarious, he said.

The governor told reporters he doesn’t see any way around Senate Bill 22. Instead, he said he’s hoping school administrators and legislators take children’s hospital officials’ desperate plea Tuesday to heart. 

“I’m counting, frankly, on the goodwill of our school boards, the goodwill of the people of the state of Ohio. The facts have been laid out very clearly by our children’s hospitals. I hope when people of the state hear those facts that we’re going to see more and more of our schools do what is clearly necessary to do.

“We are at a crisis right now.”

The facts

Nearly 30,000 of Ohio’s school-age children have contracted COVID-19 since Aug. 15, a nearly 200-percent increase between the weeks ending Aug. 15 and Sept. 4, DeWine said Tuesday.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported pediatric cases have spiked about 240 percent nationwide since early July, when COVID-19’s highly contagious delta variant began surging, he added. During that same time period, Ohio has seen a 2,000-percent increase in COVID-19 cases among children, the governor said.

COVID-19 cases are now increasing nearly twice as fast among children, compared to the rest of Ohio’s population.

“For a long time, [COVID-19] was perceived as a disease that did not impact our kids. That belief has been shattered over the last couple of months,” said Debbie Feldman, president and CEO of Dayton Children’s Hospitals, where capacity has been at critical levels more than half the time since Aug. 28.

In some cases, parents visiting the children’s hospital ER wait so long they leave before being seen, Feldman said, citing one day in which 40 families left amid long waits.

“On a normal day, that’s zero,” she said.

The fact that four times as many workers have been absent due to illness — almost entirely COVID-related — compounds those long wait times, Feldman added.

On Tuesday, Akron Children’s Hospital reported its highest-ever single-day total for pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 16 children hospitalized at the Akron campus and two at the Boardman campus, Holly Pupino, hospital spokesperson told Mahoning Matters.

“Our pediatric intensive care unit is full, but we are managing resources,” she told Mahoning Matters.

“We have two paths forward,” said Dr. Patty Manning, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “One of those paths to end this pandemic is … ‘Why don’t we let everyone get sick?’ To some degree, that’s what we’re doing right now.

“Some of them will get very sick. Some of them might die. They will overwhelm our health care systems and they will affect [health care] in Ohio.”

The other path, Manning said, is to use tools that are “safe and effective,” such as masks.

“I plead with you as school leaders, as superintendents, as community members: Please understand what we’re asking you and please do this small thing and allow kids to be masked in schools.”

Back to masks?

Whereas an average 561 cases were reported per 100,000 non-school age Ohioans over the two weeks ending Sept. 4, it was 909 cases per 100,000 school-age children.

School districts that don’t require masks are seeing even higher spread, with case rates at 946 per 100,000 people. Districts that don’t require masks have seen a 54-percent increase in cases week-over-week, whereas districts, where masks are required for all or some students, have seen a 34-percent increase.

"The data are now clear that there is a higher level of COVID-19 in school districts where masks are not required," DeWine said Tuesday. "If we want our schools to stay open, the best way to do that is for those 12 and over to get vaccinated. But because those under 12 are still too young to be vaccinated, we need students who come in to school to wear a mask until we get through this."

About 54 percent of Ohio students are covered by a school mask mandate. But masks are still optional in nearly two-thirds of Ohio’s more than 600 school districts, DeWine said.

That ratio is similar in the Mahoning Valley, where 28 of 42 school districts have left masks optional for all students, according to the latest media reports, including Mahoning Matters’ list of mask policies at local school districts. That includes seven districts in Mahoning County, 13 in Trumbull and all but one of Columbiana County’s nine districts. See the full list of districts without mask requirements below.

“As children’s hospital leaders, we have our hands full managing the tsunami of kids that have come our way,” said Manning. “We looks to any leaders in school districts or the state to do what you can to help us.”

More than two-thirds of Mahoning Matters readers polled on requiring masks in schools said they supported such measures. Of the 137 respondents, 98 people, or 72 percent, said they were in favor, while 39 people, or 28 percent, said they were against.

“It’s frustrating to be in a place where everyone wants the same thing — wants the health of our children and for children to be in school,” Manning continued. “It’s also frustrating the will of a smaller minority of people are trumping the rights of children to be safe and free of risk from infection and disease.”

Here’s a list of the 28 Mahoning Valley schools and districts that do not require masks for any students, taken from reports from Mahoning Matters and other local media outlets:

Mahoning County

  • Austintown Local Schools
  • Canfield Local Schools
  • Campbell Local Schools
  • Jackson-Milton Local Schools
  • South Range Schools
  • West Branch Local Schools
  • Western Reserve Local Schools

Trumbull County

  • Bloomfield-Mespo Local Schools
  • Bristol Local Schools
  • Brookfield Local Schools
  • Howland Local Schools
  • Hubbard Exempted Village Schools
  • Joseph Badger School District
  • LaBrae Local Schools
  • Lordstown Local Schools
  • Maplewood Local Schools
  • Mathews Local Schools
  • McDonald Local Schools
  • Mineral Ridge Local Schools
  • Southington Local Schools

Columbiana County

  • Beaver Local Schools
  • Columbiana Exempted Village Schools
  • Crestview Local Schools
  • Leetonia Exempted Village Schools
  • Lisbon Exempted Village Schools
  • Salem City Schools
  • Southern Local Schools
  • United Local Schools

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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