VIENNA — In the face of an unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases, some local officials are doing what Gov. Mike DeWine won't: shutting down their communities in order to stop the latest surge.
As DeWine traveled the state to tout his “slowdown, not shutdown” plan, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Montgomery and Medina counties, as well as leaders in the city of Dayton, issued stay-at-home advisories. Cuyahoga and Franklin counties encompass Cleveland and Columbus.
In another measure of the state's struggle to manage the coronavirus surge, the Ohio Department of Health failed to update its coronavirus dashboard with new data on Wednesday. A banner across the website read, "Today's data is incomplete; thousands of reports are pending review."
ODH reported a coronavirus test positivity rate of 14 percent for Monday, the most recent day the testing data is available, though that testing data is also likely incomplete.
As a result, as DeWine flew the state to warn of the increasing dangers of mass gatherings and defend his new 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, Ohioans themselves were literally flying blind.
DeWine's Vienna visit
DeWine again mentioned his aversion to shutting down the state while giving remarks Wednesday in the hangar of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna — the latest stop in his airport tour of Ohio. But he did not hold back in describing the state of the pandemic locally.
“The Mahoning Valley is on fire," DeWine said definitively.
While the tri-county area managed to keep a lid on new coronavirus cases in the summer and early fall, Mahoning and Trumbull counties are now regularly reporting more than 100 new cases per day.
Officials in Mahoning County and Youngstown said Wednesday they intend to follow DeWine’s lead.
Mahoning County officials are encouraging the 21-day curfew that takes effect today, but haven't planned any localized stay-at-home orders, Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said Wednesday.
Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac and Dr. James Kravec, the county health board’s clinical director, are expected to address commissioners during a meeting this morning with county elected officials, some of whom — like the auditor and treasurer offices — have already limited in-person access to their services in the past week, said Rimedio-Righetti.
Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he's looking at reducing access to City Hall, specifically the Water Department. For now, when it comes to citywide orders, he wants to "let people make that decision first."
"We're revisiting our initial plan and really going to start buttoning up the things that we did in the past," Brown said.
Meanwhile, the local coronavirus surge is starting to threaten local hospital capacity.
Kravec, who also serves as Mercy Health chief medical officer, joined DeWine Wednesday and said, “If people don’t stop gathering in large groups, our hospitals will be overwhelmed … Staying home and cutting back on some things we do will absolutely reduce the spread."
Just last week, Kravec and Mercy Health Market President John Luellen penned a public letter beseeching Mahoning Valley residents to rethink their Thanksgiving plans and consider staying home. The doctors cited rising cases in Canada following the country's Thanksgiving about six weeks ago.
'In by curfew'
DeWine is hopeful the new statewide curfew that goes into effect today will also limit the potential for coronavirus spread on Black Friday — when Americans are traditionally lined up in the wee hours of the morning to swarm stores for deals. According to the state's new beefed-up mask mandate, stores are also expected to publicly post capacity.
"I do not expect to see a Black Friday like we've seen in the past," DeWine said Wednesday, noting most big-box retailers have adjusted their sales plans to limit throngs of shoppers.
News of the 21-day, 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew came a week after DeWine threatened industry shutdowns if the tide of rising cases doesn't turn. Exceptions to the new measure are varied.
Ohioans may leave their homes after 10 p.m. for essential work, healthcare needs, emergencies, grocery shopping and take-out dining, DeWine explained Tuesday. When it comes to enforcement, DeWine said he doesn't expect law enforcement to pull people over driving after 10 p.m. Rather, officers might approach a group of people gathering after curfew.
DeWine was again pressed with questions Wednesday about the effectiveness of the new curfew from a public health standpoint.
“We never said a 10 p.m. curfew would stem the tide,” he said, but it’s one tactic for reducing contacts between people, and "when we reduce contacts, we see the virus go down."
But a tweet from Dr. Tara Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Kent State University, made the rounds on Twitter criticizing the science behind the decision.
"I haven't met a single public health official who thinks these types of curfews/ 10pm shutdowns will be particularly helpful," she wrote.
When asked to respond to her tweet, DeWine brought up former Health Director Dr. Amy Acton's favorite metaphor, comparing pandemic public health measures to layers of swiss cheese. Individually, they won't stem spread, but layered together, they can make a difference and reduce viral transmission.
Waiting on a vaccine
These efforts, DeWine said, "build a bridge" to a future vaccine. Due to recent news from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, “there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he proclaimed.
Both companies announced their vaccines are 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 and will be ready to distribute in limited quantities by the end of the year.
But, it's not yet clear how soon the vaccines will be available to the Mahoning Valley.
The Ohio Department of Health identified 10 sites across the state that will first receive the vaccine when it is authorized. Mahoning County, which has the fifth-highest number of COVID-19 deaths of all of Ohio’s 88 counties, is absent from the list.
DeWine was unable to explain why Wednesday, but said, "It will go out everywhere," and residents of the Mahoning Valley needn't worry.
During a Wednesday conference call with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Cleveland, D-OH, on new federal legislation to eliminate out-of-pocket vaccination costs for Medicaid consumers, Dr. Sarah Sams of Columbus said the state is still coordinating its vaccine distribution system — "there's nothing set in stone yet."
One yet-unknown variable is how the vaccine must be stored for transit. Of the two current frontrunner vaccine candidates, Pfizer's must be kept extremely cold, at minus 70 degrees Celsius; Moderna's can be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is similar to a household freezer, according to NPR.
"That will have an influence on how and where it can be distributed," Sams said. "The most important thing is getting it to healthcare workers and high-risk patients first so we can care for the patients that are seriously ill. ... Distributing it down through the ranks to all patients will be very important."
Reporters Justin Dennis and Ellen Wagner contributed to this report.