Though the two-week rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 Ohioans continues to slow, as the state health department reported Thursday, Mahoning Valley health officials note local communities are behind that curve.
While new case rates in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties are now down after peaking in late September and early October, their recovery has been slower among most of Ohio’s 88 counties, state data shows.
ODH ranks those two-week case rates by county every Thursday. Whereas Trumbull County had the 80th highest rate out of the 88 counties for the two weeks ending Sept. 8; Mahoning had the 70th; and Columbiana had the 60th; they’ve steadily moved up in the rankings since then — with the exception of Trumbull’s most recent ranking — suggesting coronavirus’ delta surge was also delayed in Valley counties and is still stronger than elsewhere in the state.
As of Thursday, Columbiana County had the 9th-highest ranking of new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks; Mahoning has the 40th-highest; and Trumbull has the 59th-highest.
Laura Fauss, spokesperson for the Columbiana County Health District, said though hospitalizations in the county have started to decline and the average number of new cases each day has begun to level off, the county’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests of 14 percent remains above the state average of 11.2 percent.
“Last year we noticed our county was behind the curve when state cases were going up,” she told Mahoning Matters. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re more rural. We’re behind the curve on what you see statewide.”
An average of 81 cases have been reported each day this month in Columbiana County. There were an average of 75 cases per day in September and 28 in August.
The county recently reached the 40-percent mark for full vaccinations which was “a long time coming,” Fauss said. Statewide, nearly 60 percent of eligible Ohioans age 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.
In Trumbull County, contact tracing efforts suggest new infections — especially via the coronavirus’ highly contagious delta variant — are spreading quickly among households, said Kris Wilster, the county health district’s environmental health director.
“In the home, when one parent gets it they usually give it to everyone in the family,” he told Mahoning Matters, adding that “any kind of mass gathering” like a school homecoming, contributes to new spread.
The county has averaged 99 new cases per day so far this month. It averaged 95 in September and 36 in August.
Though the state of the pandemic changed with delta, local health districts like Trumbull’s are still following the same state guidelines from ODH.
“We are just in facilitation mode. … They’re still the same talking points,” Wilster said. “They’re no different now. … It’s hard to get everybody on board.”
Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac told Mahoning Matters Thursday he thinks it’s time Valley residents get “back to the basics” — practicing good hand hygiene, staying home when sick and considering future holiday gatherings with caution.
Canfield Local Schools administrators on Wednesday said they’re looking for a new solution to mandated student quarantines following coronavirus exposure and called for Mahoning County’s health board to help them implement a new “test to stay” initiative for students, which could allow exposed students to return to class after two negative tests.
Statistics the county’s epidemiologist recently presented to school officials suggest only a small percentage of students who contracted COVID got it from being exposed at school, Tekac said. About 900 county students were identified as COVID-19 close contacts from the beginning of each school’s school year to Oct. 5. After removing household contacts from the equation, about 100 students actually tested positive for the coronavirus, or about 11 percent.
Under “test to stay,” there would have been about 800 fewer quarantines at county schools so far this year.
Tekac said if the state health department adopts the new protocol — which is currently on a trial run at schools in Warren County, Ohio — the county health board would help establish the program in the county.
Though the possibility of a winter surge of new cases looms, Tekac said he thinks the county will be better prepared this year.
With 1,076 new COVID-19 deaths reported statewide between Oct. 1 to Oct. 12, the month is on-track to be as deadly as December 2020, which saw more than 2,100 coronavirus deaths.
But, as Tekac noted, the coronavirus vaccine wasn’t widely available then and only local health departments were authorized to administer them.
Local health workers have also gotten better at responding to outbreaks than they were last year.
“We’re conditioned to continue to do the work, as well as all normal public health activities that we put on hold for almost a year,” he said.