OKEANA, Ohio — How does a week without COVID-19 sound? Butler County has a "no transmission" zone, at least statistically. One ZIP code reported no new cases over the last seven days which is part of a trend changing how epidemiologists track spread.
For the owners of Country Barrel Restaurant in Okeana, the pandemic's latest turn calls for reflection.
"We're still here (and) a lot of places aren't," Charlie Hertsenberg said.
Butler County reported fewer new COVID-19 cases than any seven-day period in the last six months.
"We were definitely busier this past week that just ended and today than we were (prior)," he said. "Why? Is it COVID-related? I don't know. But, my wife's an (emergency room) nurse and last week they only saw a couple patients."
County cases rates fell by 53%, according to Butler County General Health District data released Tuesday. Though still considered an area of high transmission by Centers for Disease Control standards, Butler County mirrors national trends. Increasing numbers of counties report less spread.
In Ohio, 21 counties are no longer places of high transmission. Holmes County is at a moderate level.
Within Butler County, most zip codes reported dwindling numbers of new cases. However, 45053 — the area around Okeana — is the only one with "no transmission" in the last week.
"It's important to remember that because of at-home rapid tests, public health may not be aware of all true cases," said Erin Smiley, Health Promotion Director for Butler County General Health District. "So, it's not realistic to say there is no transmission. When the county reaches low to moderate transmission, we're hopeful that we'll also see a correspondingly low number of hospitalizations and deaths, which are still relatively high due to the Omicron surge. Despite a reduction in COVID-19 cases, it's common for hospitalizations and deaths to be a lagging indicator."
Still, public health is changing its approach to contact tracing. Butler County epidemiologists will mostly focus on outbreaks, particularly in long-term care centers and among groups at high risk for severe illness or death.
"People have been calling it the exit ramp," said Dr. Stephen Feagins, Chief Clinical Officer for Mercy Health. "Do you just turn everything off and stop? Or do you gradually transition down? So, that in the state of Ohio is still being worked out."
Hospital and county authorities soon expect new mask guidelines from the state and CDC.
"I see people coming out more (often) and later," Hertsenberg said.
While he loves seeing students from Ross High School, businessmen from West Chester and those in-between return to the restaurant, Hertsenberg said he still worries about supply chain shortages and hiring.
"Do I think there will be more people for me and the restaurant segment," he said. "I don't think there will be more people beating the doors down to get in a restaurant. You're really going to have to work hard."
Already, pressures from the pandemic forced him to close the Brickhouse Pub and Grub in Florence, Kentucky last November.
Thanks to loyal customers eating two meals a day and tipping extra to keep staff fed, the Country Barrel still thrives. It is why looking forward begs its owners to look back on the cost of survival.
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