Ohioans should stay home whenever they can this December, Gov. Mike DeWine recommended Thursday afternoon. Although the National Guard is preparing to distribute the state’s first round of 98,000 COVID-19 vaccines, Ohio — like the rest of the country — is still in the grip of a health emergency at its worst.
Dozens of Ohioans die of COVID-19 every day, according to data released by the Ohio Department of Health. Health officials are still working to process and double-check a backlog of antigen tests. Hospitals are more strained than ever, and health care workers fear the aftershocks of a travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday.
Christmas, a little more than three weeks away, could make it all worse.
“Quite simply, we’re in crisis,” said Dr. Nora Colburn, one of the health care workers invited to address the state during the governor’s news conference.
Dr. Andy Thomas, chief clinical officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, estimated about a third of patients hospitalized in Ohio’s intensive care units have COVID-19. In rural areas, the total can be even higher — anywhere from 50-60% of ICU patients in small hospitals have COVID-19, and the demands of caring for them can force hospitals to defer other types of treatment.
Non-emergency surgeries such as hip and knee replacements are the first things to go, Thomas said. Other, even more difficult cuts could come next. Although many hospitals have successfully expanded their capacity to treat more patients than usual, Thomas said intensive care capacity is the hardest thing to increase.
“This is not the beginning of the end,” Thomas said. “This is not even the end of the beginning. We are in a really difficult spot here when hospitals are already at their highest levels and at high capacity across the state, and we’re just heading into what the CDC director has described as the most challenging three months of the pandemic.”
He and Colburn are both anxious about a projected wave of post-Thanksgiving cases, most of which will likely manifest over the next seven days. Over a million Americans traveled by plane on the day before the holiday; more drove to gatherings with extended family, despite warnings and pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colburn said Ohioans must rededicate themselves over the winter to common-sense health precautions such as masking, social distancing and frequent hand-washing. These rules apply just as much in private with friends as they do in public at the grocery store, she added.
“I think a lot of people think they’re being safe, but in reality, their social circle is much bigger and more dangerous than it really should be,” she said. “If you are interacting with three other households, that’s actually quite a bit.”
DeWine did not issue any new orders but encouraged Ohioans to be cautious, leave home only for essential errands and listen to health care workers as they plan the rest of their year.
By the numbers
The Ohio Department of Health reported 8,921 new diagnoses on Thursday, but thousands more tests remain under review and await confirmation. The state has taken the extra step of double-checking all antigen tests — a type of test that provides faster but statistically less accurate results than other methods — to ensure diagnoses that come from antigen testing are reliable.
ODH also reported 396 new hospitalizations, 33 patients who were newly admitted to intensive care units and 82 new deaths.
New purple counties
Although Hamilton, Adams, Clermont and Warren counties ended November on a watch list, none of them reached the highest level (purple) of the state’s color-coded health advisory system on Thursday. All four remain red, signaling “very high exposure and spread” of COVID-19 inside their borders.
Instead, five counties in Ohio’s northeastern corner joined the purple list: Richland, Medina, Summit, Portage and Stark.