Social distancing still essential as Ohio begins work on plan for transition out of crisis

Posted at 1:55 PM, Apr 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 19:38:50-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fourteen minutes into his Thursday afternoon news conference, Gov. Mike DeWine brought up “Back to the Future.”

Like the heroes of the '80s film series, he said, Ohioans got a look at their most likely future in March and acted — successfully, according to health experts — to change it for the better. Initial epidemiological models did not, for example, predict that Ohioans would voluntarily undertake social distancing or stick to it through the pandemic.

Largely, with some high-publicity exceptions, they have. Where Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton once predicted a peak of 10,000 new COVID-19 diagnoses per day, she now anticipates a far flatter curve: Fewer cases over a longer period of time, placing less strain on Ohio’s healthcare system.

Acton said future spikes are more likely to be localized, and ODH has developed tracking methods that can quickly contain a small outbreak.

“We’ve hit a home run,” DeWine said. “We’ve done a great job. So is it time to celebrate? No.”

A home run is relative in a global pandemic. ODH had recorded 5,512 confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses, 1,612 hospitalizations and 213 deaths by Thursday afternoon. DeWine and Acton both anticipate more — perhaps many more — in the immediate future. The state is still preparing for the worst by marking out convention centers that will become overflow hospital space and utilizing a mask sterilization machine that will drastically decrease the number of new N95 masks needed by healthcare workers.

As he spoke, a small group of protesters marched outside the statehouse and chanted that he and Acton should be removed from their posts. Some wore masks; few maintained the recommended six feet of distance between each other; all had arrived to pressure the government to ease or abandon its orders canceling school and closing businesses.

“Save our senior year,” read one sign, which lamented the cancellation of high school sports, graduation and prom.

“This is tyrrany (sic),” read another.

A third: “Quarantine worse than virus.”

DeWine acknowledged that frustration is likely common after weeks of self-quarantine but warned that relaxing restrictions could change the future again. New models based on current behavior could be proven wrong, just like the old ones, if behavior changes.

“The game is not over, and the rosy scenario, the optimistic scenario you’ve seen in the last several days, are based upon a belief, on a calculation that we will continue to do the social distancing in the immediate future at the same level and do the same good job as we’ve done up until now,” DeWine said.

Hoping, however, that Ohioans’ social distancing will continue, he, Acton and other state officials have begun work on what he described as a “fairly sophisticated” plan to transition the state back into normalcy.

Neither DeWine nor Acton set a date for when they expected to implement it. The plan won’t become public until at least next week.

However, Acton said she hopes to make Ohio one of the most aggressive and assertive states working back toward the status quo that existed in February.

Instead of using a movie metaphor, as DeWine had, Acton compared the way out of the pandemic to climbing a mountain.

“Climbing mountains takes an incredible amount of teamwork,” she said. “It takes having sherpas and people to help us lead the way. It takes being very careful and going to each base camp carefully. I want you to know that every move we’re making is based on the best science, and we will not leave your side as we get you carefully through this arduous journey ahead.”