Although about 30% of Ohioans had received at least one COVID-19 shot by Thursday afternoon, Gov. Mike DeWine warned in a news conference that the state’s rising diagnosis and hospitalization numbers could foreshadow a variant-driven spike if enough people let down their guard.
“This is a race,” he said. “We cannot vaccinate fast enough.”
And signs of relaxed COVID safety measures, like pictures of maskless crowds at Cincinnati’s designated outdoor refreshment area (DORA) at the Banks, are worrisome to government and health officials in Columbus.
“Look, it’s troubling,” DeWine said of the DORA images he had seen. “They’re outside, and that’s the best thing I can say — they are outside. But more people wearing masks would certainly make me feel a lot better. In that close proximity, it would not be a place that I would advise my family to go. It would not be a place that I would go.”
Ohio Department of Health medical advisor Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said three highly contagious variant strains of COVID-19 – one known to originate in the United Kingdom, two believed to have come from California – are likely behind the increase in Ohio cases, which has been especially pronounced in the northern part of the state.
Sixty-five of Ohio’s 88 counties observed an uptick in cases between March 25 and April 1, according to ODH data. The case plateau celebrated by DeWine and Vanderhoff in mid-to-late March, at which time daily diagnoses leveled out around 1,500 each day, is peeling upward and headed back above the 2,500 mark.
On Thursday, when Vanderhoff and DeWine gave their warnings, ODH reported 2,475 new diagnoses – a little over 1,000 more than it had reported on March 1, when it recorded 1,452.
“That mirrors what we’re seeing in much of the rest of the nation,” Vanderhoff said of the numbers. “After a long and dramatic decline, cases leveled off last week and are rising this week.”
Especially concerning, from Vanderhoff’s point of view, are signs that the variants are driving an even higher number of new diagnoses in Michigan, which shares a border with Ohio. DeWine said he planned to speak to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about coordinating their states’ responses within the week.
Vanderhoff and DeWine both warned that the variant strains could be present anywhere in Ohio, not just in the worst-affected northern counties.
Studies show that vaccination provides protection against these emerging alternative strains, Vanderhoff added. Ohioans should get it whenever they can and continue common-sense health practices like masking, social distancing and frequent handwashing in the meantime.
“Ohio remains in a race against a virus that is now more contagious and is right back on our heels, but we can win this race if we don’t falter,” he said.