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'Mask Up Mahoning': As surge worsens, county officials prepare public health campaigns

“I’m hoping our community can come together and flatten the curve one more time until we can get to that vaccine," Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac said Thursday.

YOUNGSTOWN — On Thursday, nearly a third of Ohioans awoke under new stay-at-home advisories.

In Mahoning County, however, officials took stock and revealed their own idea: a local public health campaign to alert residents about the immediate threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past two weeks, Cuyahoga and Franklin counties — both of which issued stay-at-home advisories Wednesday, in conjunction with city leaders — have reported 615 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people and 521 new cases per 100,000 people, respectively.

Though Mahoning has less than a fifth the population of those counties, its spread the past two weeks is comparable: 540 new cases per 100,000 people. It also has the state’s 2nd-highest death rate per 100,000 people, according to the Ohio media collaborative Your Voice Ohio, and on Thursday had the 6th-highest total deaths to date in Ohio.

Mahoning County Public Health is putting federal CARES Act dollars passed through the county toward a series of public service announcements discouraging residents from gathering for the holidays, in order to slow the spread of the virus.

The commissioners’ “Mask Up Mahoning” campaign, which includes billboard ad buys and customized masks for distribution, will coincide with a resolution for a similar stay-at-home advisory, to be passed next week, said Audrey Tillis, commissioners’ executive director.

Mercy Health, which operates hospitals in Youngstown, Boardman and Warren, on Thursday announced it joined a similar national campaign.

Infectious spread

The spread of infection in the county has reached new heights in the past week, Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac told county officials Thursday. The county’s previous record for new cases in a single day, 62, was reported in mid-April, he said. On Nov. 14, the county tallied 160 new cases.

“That’s 160 phone calls that we have to try to make, hopefully in the next 24 hours” — and often, those residents don’t answer or leave health officials waiting for a callback, he said. “Trying to keep up with this caseload is difficult and challenging.”

As a result, the health department has begun mailing letters informing residents they’ve tested positive for coronavirus, asking them to isolate, identify close contacts and await a call from the department.

Then comes the contact tracing work — mapping out that infected person’s circle of close contacts to find new, potential infections. “What we’re finding is these circles are not very small,” Tekac said. “It’s truly community spread is what we’re seeing.”

County health workers plan to be in the field on Black Friday, Nov. 27, passing out masks, hand sanitizer and literature at the county’s high-traffic shopping centers, Tekac said.

The health department’s CARES Act funding has also funded “care bags” to be left on the doorsteps of households with a COVID-positive resident. They contain essentials: several masks; an oral thermometer with several probe covers; a pulse oximeter which can be placed on the fingertip to measure blood-oxygen level; and educational literature.

So far this month, at least 56 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the county, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.

As Dr. James Kravec, the health department’s chief medical officer, noted during a Wednesday press conference with Gov. Mike DeWine in Vienna, the county’s hospital capacity remains as strained as it was in March, during the state’s first pronounced surge of new cases.

“That’s concerning,” Tekac said Thursday. “I’m hoping our community can come together and flatten the curve one more time until we can get to that vaccine.”

Business slowdown

Commissioners on Thursday allocated another $500,000 in CARES Act funding to Valley Economic Development Partners, which has administered $1.7 million in small business relief grants to at least 184 businesses, Executive Director Teresa Miller said Thursday.

The program, which offers up to $10,000 in reimbursements to help businesses survive the year, has been “extremely successful,” she said.

With Thursday’s allocation, a total of $3.25 million has been allotted to the program thus far. More than 30 additional applications totaling about $300,000 were still pending Thursday, she said. That means the program still has another $1.2 million to grant until the end of the year, when the funding expires.

“If they got [federal Paycheck Protection Program] funds or they were able to survive the shutdowns, now they’re in catch-up mode,” Miller said. “This funding helps them continue … helps them finish out the year.”

To qualify, Mahoning County businesses must employ 50 or fewer employees and have $2 million or less in annual revenue, she said. For Trumbull County businesses, the revenue cap is $1 million.

Trumbull County has also allocated $750,000 for the program, almost all of which has been awarded, Miller said.

Application forms for Mahoning County and Trumbull County businesses are available at the top of the organization’s homepage.

“These businesses have been very appreciative of the help,” Miller said. “It may seem small to some people, but to these businesses, it’s a big deal. We’re happy to help.”

Youngstown’s Westside Bowl received a $10,000 grant which covered costs to boost its food takeout business during Ohio’s spring shutdown. Before, carryout was 5 to 10 percent of its gross sales; after, it was about half, said owner Nate Offerdahl.

The bowling alley and concert venue also received a PPP loan — which paid kitchen staff for “the tightest” two months of the year — and an economic injury disaster loan, which was used for renovations.

But without further federal assistance through another Congressional relief package — including enhanced unemployment for service industry workers and loans specifically for music venues — Offerdahl said he thinks the hospitality business is facing “dire circumstances.” The existing safety net is not enough, he said.

Gov. Mike DeWine previously said he expected customers who don’t feel safe from coronavirus in service establishments would spend their money elsewhere, and thus expected the market to regulate itself.

“Business is off, but the idea that the market is gonna’ regulate itself — you’re putting various restrictions on businesses that are necessary, unequivocally,” Offerdahl said. “But we’re also put in a very difficult position because we’re being forced to spend money to refit and reorganize existing structures then we’re crossing our fingers and hoping the public feels comfortable.

“At the end of the day, I don’t foresee a way for us to get through the next 60 days without restaurants and bars closed down again. And if that’s the case, then that has to be remedied.”

Westside Bowl last week suspended bowling and is considering returning to takeout-only business as early as Monday to protect its customers and staff, Offerdahl said. He and other employees are considered to be high-risk from COVID-19, he said.

“It’s a financial hardship for everybody, not just us, as owners. But I think we’re in a situation now where our No. 1 priority is to keep everyone who works here and everyone who comes here safe,” he said.

Other county allocations Thursday included $100,000 for Direction Home of Eastern Ohio, which is assisting area long-term care facilities with sourcing supplies.

Commissioners also eased spending restrictions on the $1.5 million previously allocated to Catholic Charities, which is offering rent and mortgage subsidies to those impacted by the pandemic.

“Some people coming in [for] mortgage and rent had other needs, like food,” Tillis said.

County slowdown

All the county’s myriad departments and offices have somehow been affected by COVID-19. The auditor’s office last week limited in-person business, and the treasurer’s office has remained closed since March.

Here’s an updated list of how hours and services have changed for Mahoning County offices. Here are some ground-level updates local officials gave commissioners Thursday:

  • The county Emergency Management Agency, which has coordinated deliveries of PPE and other supplies to county agencies, received new state shipments of equipment in the past two weeks which were sent to the county’s long-term care facilities and first responders, the latter of whom received N95 masks and gloves, said Director Dennis O’Hara. The state is preparing more deliveries of gowns, which have been in short supply, he said.
  • Board of Developmental Disabilities Superintendent Bill Whitacre said some of the department’s staffers aren’t working out of the office at all; others are staggered. The board’s Leonard Kirtz School in Austintown is open, but only half of the enrolled students are attending in-person; the other half are remote, he said. The board’s adult day services at its Javit Court center are also at about a quarter attendance, he said.
  • County Engineer Pat Ginnetti said all employees who can work remotely are. Some of the department’s workers have reportedly been exposed. “To minimize the potential of putting the whole department down, we’re going to split shifts with the labor workers as well,” he said. The office is also considering a scheduling shakeup for sanitary workers who work regularly with the public, he said.
  • Common Pleas Court Administrator Bob Regula said the courthouse is limiting foot traffic by conducting as many hearings as possible by video and phone. He noted two employees of Judge Anthony D’Apolito’s court are quarantined until Monday, as their families were recently exposed.
  • Sheriff Jerry Greene told commissioners his office may continue doing more video arraignments and hearings even after the pandemic subsides, as it’s a more secure alternative to in-person hearings. Though staff members at more than 50 county jails across the state have contracted coronavirus, including Mahoning’s, Greene noted his jail seems to have been spared the worst of it. Only a handful of inmates have contracted the virus to date, he said. “All of our inmates, all employees wear masks all the time. I’m not seeing any transmission from employee to employee or, really, any significant amount from inmate to inmate,” he said. “Almost everybody’s catching this at home, either by a loved one or by somebody going on vacation and coming back.”
  • Probate Court Judge Robert Rusu said his and his clerk’s offices were hit with coronavirus outbreaks recently shut down through Nov. 30. The court continues to conduct all necessary hearings virtually, he said. The office was preparing a split-shift schedule to keep staffing levels low, which will begin when the office reopens for walk-in traffic, he said.
  • Domestic Relations Court Judge Beth Smith said the court’s staff is currently “a skeleton crew” due to “COVID issues” but it continues to hear deeply important child custody and divorce cases in the virtual space. She noted technical difficulties associated with the new online platform tends to demand more time and manpower from the office.
  • Children Services Executive Director Randy Muth said though a majority of the department’s work happens in the field, its offices are limited to about a quarter capacity. It’s also installed Plexiglas barriers for staff that must work there, he said.
  • Likewise, Recorder Noralynn Palermo’s workers are also separated by Plexiglas barriers, she said. Though her staff is unable to stagger or work remotely, the office has limited in-person traffic to three customers at once.

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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