DAYTON — State officials on Thursday reminded Ohioans they’re still at war against the novel coronavirus — and the state’s lost some footing in recent weeks.
The state's seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases each day was about 1,800 this week, compared to 1,500 last week.
"Cases, as I noted, are also up in Ohio for the first week in a long time," Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio Department of Health's chief medical officer, said during a Thursday briefing on the state's coronavirus response.
Three highly infectious variants of the novel coronavirus are responsible for most of the hundreds of genetic changes to the virus medical experts have recorded lately, state officials said.
"We are seeing increased COVID activity here in Ohio, and that mirrors what we're seeing in much the rest of the nation," Vanderhoff said.
Michigan's uptick in new cases is more than three times Ohio's, he noted, which "appears to be driven substantially by variants," Vanderhoff said.
More than half of the state's detected coronavirus variants have been found in counties inside the state's northern zone, which includes the Mahoning Valley on its southeast corner.
Columbiana County officials are aware coronavirus variants have been picked up in local virus screenings, county Health Commissioner Wes Vins said Thursday — but he couldn’t speak to the volume.
The county averaged nearly just six new COVID-19 cases per day between March 16 and March 24, and seven new cases per day between March 24 and April 1, according to Ohio Department of Health data.
Columbiana County last week was downgraded on the state’s public health alert system, and was no longer considered to have a high incidence of coronavirus transmission under federal guidelines.
Mahoning and Trumbull counties, however, remain at the state’s penultimate alert level. Their rate of new cases per 100,000 people remains about 50 percent higher than the high incidence threshold.
“We’ve been putting a lot of energy into vaccinations,” Vins said Thursday. “We’ve definitely done well with partners in the community to make vaccines available … and we’ve been effective at delivering those vaccines.”
But more impactful, he feels, are “personal interactions” — how residents conduct themselves in potentially risky social settings — and how well businesses and schools have stuck to pandemic protocol.
Vins noted, however, though the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in county hospitals fluctuates daily, it’s seen a slight overall increase.
Though school administrators have asked health officials to review several new plans for end-of-year school functions like proms and graduation ceremonies, Vins said he’s been urging them to sit tight and await more guidance from the state, amid the recent surge.
The state this week reported about 167 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, compared to 147 new cases last week and 144 new cases the week prior.
Though the governor promised to lift all health orders once the state reached 50 new cases per 100,000 people over two weeks, the metric has been moving in the wrong direction for weeks.
The average number of positive tests in the state has also begun climbing again, after several straight weeks of decline. At the same time, the volume of coronavirus testing in the state remains in a slump. The number of concurrent hospitalizations has also turned back upward, Vanderhoff said.
"Ohio remains in a race against a virus that is now more contagious and is right back on our heels," he said. "But we can win this race as long as we don't falter, as long as we press on with consistent masking and vaccinations."
Refocusing the vaccine
Nearly 3.5 million Ohioans have received at least their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, the state reported Thursday.
Between March 16 and 24, Trumbull County averaged about 21 new cases per day. Between March 24 and April 1, the average number of new cases per day rose to almost 32.
Trumbull County Combined Health District’s Director of Environmental Health Kris Wilster said he and his colleagues still tune into the governor’s briefings, but they’ve shifted focus to vaccination.
The district never conducted its own COVID-19 testing, but it did used to do its own contact tracing; it now contracts it out.
“Our mindset is, OK, no matter what he’s saying, if we get enough people vaccinated, we can get past it,” Wilster said.
Some Columbiana County vaccine providers have struggled to fill clinic appointments, suggesting local interest in the vaccine is “waning,” said Vins. Some report their vaccine reserve lists — filled with those ready for impromptu clinic visits to use unclaimed shots — have been completely exhausted.
The governor said soon some areas of the state may see too little demand for the vaccine, while demand remains overwhelming in other areas. Officials expect to revisit vaccine allocations weekly, taking not only population and demand into account but also areas of the states seeing the worst coronavirus spread.
Beginning April 12, vaccine providers may put up to a quarter of their allocated vaccine doses toward vaccinating their own employees, or setting up vaccine clinics at Ohio employers, in partnership with employers, labor unions and other organizations, DeWine said.
Providers looking to earmark more than a quarter of their vaccine stock can request a variance from the state.
The state expects to soon begin working with universities to vaccinate all college students before the end of the school year in May. The first clinics, expected to offer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, are expected to open next week, he said.
"Although young people are less likely to get sick from the coronavirus, they are significant carriers of the virus," DeWine said. "By offering one-dose clinics on campus, students who wish to be vaccinated will have a nearby, convenient location to get the vaccine with their peers."
Mahoning Matters reporter Jess Hardin contributed to this report.
• According to the latest figures Thursday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 1,020,041 confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus. There have been 20,275 confirmed or suspected cases in Mahoning County; 15,072 in Trumbull County; and 8,370 in Columbiana County.
• Statewide, the new adjusted COVID-19 death total is 18,609, including 575 in Mahoning County; 452 in Trumbull; and 222 in Columbiana. Mahoning County’s 575 reported COVID-19 deaths was eighth among Ohio’s 88 counties; Cuyahoga County had the most with 2,003.
• In nearby counties: Stark, 30,691 cases and 885 deaths; Portage, 11,852 cases and 192 deaths; and Ashtabula, 6,238 cases and 158 deaths.
• The Youngstown City Health District expects to administer about 500 coronavirus vaccinations each day at its mass vaccination clinic at the Covelli Centre. The first session was Thursday and future clinics will be April 8, April 14, April 22, April 29 and May 6. Appointments can be scheduled on the health department’s website or by calling 330-502-4276.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health Thursday, there were 1,028,750 COVID-19 cases in the state which have led to 25,120 deaths. There have been 8.544 confirmed or suspected cases in Mercer County and 248 deaths; 6,633 cases in Lawrence County and 194 deaths. In Mercer County, 7,580 people have received the first of two vaccination doses and 23,379 have received both; in Lawrence County, 6,741 have received one dose; 13,320 have received both.
• All adults in Pennsylvania will become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination by April 19, the Department of Health said Wednesday. The news comes nearly four months after the state rolled out its immunization effort for 4 million residents under Phase 1A. Vaccine providers now administer up to 83,000 shots per day, acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said.
• Niles residents aged 18 and older can sign up for a coronavirus vaccination clinic set for Tuesday, April 6 at the Niles Wellness Center, 213 Sharkey Drive, in Waddell Park. Appointments and pre-registration are required. Contact the mayor’s office at 330-544-9000, extension 1101, to schedule an appointment.