CEDARVILLE — Gov. Mike DeWine said as winter thaws, he expects so, too, will pandemic restrictions on large events.
“The snow is melting and we’re finally seeing the ground,” the governor said during a Thursday briefing on the state’s coronavirus response. “We got a lot of signs of spring out there, and we’ve got a lot of things to be happy about.”
For the first time in several weeks, measurements of coronavirus spread in Ohio’s 88 counties showed improvement. A handful of counties were downgraded to the state’s level 2 “orange” alert phase and are no longer considered to have a high incidence of spread. The tri-county Mahoning Valley, however, remains a high incidence area in the level 3 “red” alert phase.
The state has reported an average of about 1,800 new COVID-19 cases per day this month, compared with an average of about 4,800 new cases per day in January and 7,600 in December.
About 5,100 active cases of COVID-19 were reported in Ohio's nursing homes in one weeklong “snapshot” taken in December. That dropped to about 1,000 cases last week, DeWine said.
Average test positivity also has sunk to its lowest point in four months, though it’s still slightly above the all-time low, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The number of current COVID-19 hospitalizations also continues to decline. The state reported 1,262 hospitalizations Thursday, down from 2,519 on Feb. 1.
About 310,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine are expected to arrive in the state next week, more than double the about 145,000 doses shipped each of the last several weeks, according to a spokesperson. That doesn’t include about 90,000 doses anticipated to be in the state’s first shipment of the Johnson and Johnson-produced vaccine, which is soon expected to be greenlit by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
New big-box vaccination partners such as Wal-Mart and Meijer, as well as many smaller, independent pharmacies, are also coming online as vaccine distribution sites, DeWine said.
About 1.5 million Ohioans have received at least their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, including about 91,000 nursing home residents, 70,000 of whom are fully vaccinated, DeWine said.
And the majority of Ohio school districts are wrapping vaccination clinics for faculty and staff in preparation for widespread return to in-person learning. All but 5 percent of Ohio students are expected to return to the classroom by March 1, the governor said.
Draped in those promising metrics, DeWine announced Thursday the administration is preparing a slew of updated health orders expected to slowly relax pandemic restrictions.
He previewed a new rule allowing sporting events, entertainment venues and graduation ceremonies to continue at a maximum capacity of 25 percent for indoor events and 30 percent for outdoor events, along with other fundamental safety guidelines, including mandatory masking and spaced seating and walkways. General admission to lawns, standing rooms or infields would be permitted with mask and social distancing measures.
"The vaccines have given us great hope, but until we have enough Ohioans vaccinated, we must continue masking and social distancing," the governor is quoted in a Thursday release. "Easing up on some prevention measures is intended to serve as a starting point. If the trajectory of cases, hospitalizations and deaths continues downward, we hope to be able to relax more of these measures. If it gets worse, we may have to tighten up."
The governor also suggested the new guidelines, expected to be released over the next several days, would accommodate fairs and festivals, banquets and wedding receptions, parades and school functions such as prom.
"The whole goal here will be for all of us to get back to where we want to be — get back to what our life was before the pandemic. There's a bridge to that life, and we have to take the bridge," DeWine said — referring to widespread coronavirus vaccination and continued use of masks, which he said is expected to continue for some time, until Ohioans achieve herd immunity from the novel coronavirus.
DeWine added that new coronavirus variants now gaining prominence remain a concern, but that he is "optimistic" about the plan to relax restrictions.
• According to the latest figures Thursday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 962,404 confirmed and presumed cases of the coronavirus. There have been 19,314 cases in Mahoning County; 14,202 in Trumbull County; and 8,077 in Columbiana County.
• Statewide, there have been 17,125 confirmed and presumed deaths, including 540 in Mahoning County; 458 in Trumbull; and 180 in Columbiana. Mahoning County's 540 reported COVID-19 deaths Thursday was eighth-highest among Ohio's 88 counties; Cuyahoga County had the most with 1,715.
• In nearby counties: Stark, 29,161 cases and 836 deaths; Portage, 10,897 cases and 155 deaths; and Ashtabula, 5,907 cases and 144 deaths.
• About half of Ohio’s small businesses face closure by the end of the first quarter of 2021 if they don’t get more federal assistance, The Center Square reported Thursday. According to a revenue poll, 51 percent of the 10,000 businesses polled reported they’re not meeting revenue needs, and cited pandemic insecurities and a significant rise in online shopping. Nationwide, 44 percent of businesses are in a similar situation, according to pollsters.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday, there have been 922,990 total COVID-19 cases in the state and 23,868 related deaths. There have been 4,531 cases in Lawrence County with 181 deaths; 6,394 cases in Mercer County with 238 deaths. In Mercer County, 13,723 people have received the first of two vaccination doses, and 5,808 have received both; in Lawrence County, 7,941 have received one dose; 3,491 have received both.
• A Pennsylvania statehouse bill that would activate the state’s National Guard to administer coronavirus vaccines is now awaiting Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature after unanimous approval in the Senate on Wednesday, The Center Square reported. The state needs 8 million more doses to vaccinate all the currently eligible Pennsylvanians, but so far has received less than half that from the federal government.