COLUMBUS — When it comes to the latest COVID-19 surge in Ohio, state health officials have made it clear a mask mandate is not in the cards — even with cases nearly as high as last year's winter peak.
"While we're not yet at an all-time high, these numbers are certainly trouble," Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff admitted Thursday.
In the two weeks since Vanderhoff's last media session, the state's daily case count has risen from 4,800 new cases to nearly 8,000. Three hours after Thursday's news conference, the ODH reported a new eight-month, single-day case record of 7,897 new COVID-19 cases.
When pushed on his refusal to recommend a mask mandate to Gov. Mike DeWine, Vanderhoff again emphasized personal choice, which based on the COVID-19 data isn't producing the desired results.
"In order for any of that to work, it is the people of Ohio who have to make it work," Vanderhoff said. "It is the people of Ohio who have to choose those paths to the brighter future. we have to recognize that this is a democracy, and in a democracy, people have the right to govern. And they have made it very clear there is a low tolerance for mandates."
On Thursday, the state's rate of cases per 100,000 people over two weeks rose to 582, nearly six times the threshold for high incidence. Less than 50 percent of Ohioans are fully vaccinated.
Columbiana County this week reported about 523 new cases per 100,000 residents (up from 413); Mahoning reported 467 (up from 378); and Trumbull reported 323 (up from 266), which was the fourth-lowest rate among Ohio's 88 counties.
About 47 percent of all residents in Mahoning County have completed their vaccinations; 44.7 percent in Trumbull; and 38.2 percent in Columbiana.
While it's true the state legislature passed a bill to make it harder to enact public health measures, it's not impossible.
For example, the governor must wait 60 days after a health order expires or is terminated to re-issue a similar one. Sixty days after the termination of Ohio's state of emergency was Aug. 17.
Just because the state doesn't appear to have the political will, that doesn't mean other institutions don't. Implementing public health measures now appears to be up to smaller entities, like school districts, universities, cities and private companies.
Most recently, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther mandated masks indoors in the city effective today. The nearby cities of Buxley of Whitehall quickly followed suit.
After multiple Ohio public universities issued indoor mask mandates, Youngstown State University followed suit.
Prior to starting the school year, multiple Mahoning Valley school districts — including Boardman and Youngstown — have also mandated masks. Poland Local Schools on Wednesday issued a mask mandate for all students after an outbreak resulted in 99 high schoolers in quarantine.
When asked to comment on the Columbus developments, Vanderhoff said, "In terms of the mayor's mask order or mandate, certainly here for the department of health, our facilities that are in Columbus, we will be acting in a manner that is respectful of that order."
Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, an infectious disease specialist at OhioHealth, was also on the call. He had much less difficulty opining on the measure.
"Within Franklin County, specifically in the city of Columbus, we are having a lot of COVID, and I am supportive of Mayor Ginther's leadership on having an executive order for wearing a mask in public indoors. It's all really about protecting the hospital capacity within central Ohio," he said.
Five hours after Vanderhoff's news conference, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.
The expansive rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Biden is also signing an executive order to require vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
When asked if the state plans to do anything to supplement Biden's announcement before Biden's speech, Vanderhoff said, "I could not as a physician believe more strongly in the benefits of vaccines for COVID-19. But I can't comment on what the president's going to say. ... I can only say that as the Ohio Department of Health, our role has been to provide all of you with the best information we can about getting through this pandemic and getting through it in a way that keeps us safe and healthy and then keeps you healthy in the future."
— Associated Press reports were used in this story.