Editor’s note: With our coronavirus coverage, our goal is not to alarm you but to equip you with the information you need. We will try to keep things in context and focus on helping you make decisions.
Three Ohioans — a married couple who became ill after a cruise and a man who attended a D.C. political conference — were diagnosed Monday with COVID-19, the coronavirus strain prompting worldwide quarantines and travel freezes.
Gov. Mike DeWine had expected it, he said in an afternoon news conference with Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton.
"What happened today, we knew was coming," he said. "Every health expert told us we were going to see this. It was just a question of time. Most health experts said, ‘There are people out there who are positive at this point. They just have not been tested.’"
All three diagnosed patients are between 54 and 56 years old and live in Cuyahoga County outside of Cleveland, DeWine said.
The married patients had been on a Nile cruise and began to notice symptoms when they returned home. The third patient, who did not have known contact with the other two, had attended the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, where at least three other attendees would later be diagnosed with the virus.
DeWine responded to the diagnoses by declaring a state of emergency, which he said will allow Ohio health organizations to more easily procure the medical supplies they'll need to test and treat patients. The state received a small number of coronavirus testing kits from the federal government last Friday, according to Acton — enough to test no more than 400 people.
Health director: Talk to doctors sooner, not later
Acton praised the way healthcare professionals had responded to the diagnoses, especially in the case of the couple returning from Egypt.
"Everything was handled exactly by the book," she said, noting that the couple had reported their symptoms to a doctor as soon as they noticed them and shared information about their recent travel history.
She added the Ohio Health Department had already begun tracing the three patients' recent contact with others, and anyone at risk of contracting the coronavirus from those interactions would be notified by the government. In the meantime, anyone who believes they might have the virus should contact their doctor as soon as possible.
ODH labs will proceed by prioritizing tests of the highest-risk patients: the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions and compromised immune systems, and health care workers who could interact with patients as part of their daily routine. Private labs will perform tests in less urgent cases.
Hospitals will begin to deploy the contingency plans they had developed in conjunction with ODH as news of the virus spread.
"They’re doing things at hospitals like instead of the whole group of residents, the tribe coming in your room, they’re down to one to two people," Acton said. "And there’s a whole list of measures — I know OSU, for instance, just released their protocol today. They’re training all their staff in how to use PPE (personal protective equipment). They’re looking into PPE as protective gear that healthcare professionals wear. We do know there are shortages, so they’re making all sorts of contingency plans for that.”
Acton emphasized that information about the virus, including its infection and mortality rates, will continue to evolve as it spreads. She said the significant delay between diagnosis and hospitalization (9-12 days), and later between hospitalization and death (3-6 weeks), creates an information lag even among healthcare providers. Knowledge about how it is transmitted, how it manifests and who is most at risk could change.
For now, people who are middle-aged or older should be especially cautious. People who regularly interact or live with an older person should do likewise.
According to Acton, the best most Ohioans can do for now is exercise common sense, practice good hygiene, be mindful of their interactions with vulnerable people and be kind to each other as health professionals tackle the crisis.
"There are a lot of people who are scared," she said. "There’s a lot of fear, and there’s a lot we can do to help each other, so we’re going to do this together in Ohio."
NCAA games and presidential rallies are still on, but 'think long and hard about it' before going
DeWine said his government would monitor upcoming public events such as the two NCAA games scheduled for March 20 and 22 in Cleveland but had not yet encouraged any cancellations.
"As this moves forward and this situation is analyzed, you’re going to be getting announcements from us every single day," he said. "And, look, we have to be cautious. This will change people’s lives for a while, and the whole goal is to make sure Ohioans are safe, and we have to focus on that at this point.”
He said he would not attempt to cancel upcoming campaign rallies for Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, both of whom plan to speak in Cleveland on Tuesday, but encouraged people in high-risk demographics to exercise common sense and avoid crowded public events.
“I’m the last person to in any way advise another politician what to do, but I would simply say that a gathering of a lot of people is probably not a great idea," he said. "They have the right to do it, it’s the First Amendment, we’re not going to block people from doing that, but certainly if you’re elderly ... I wouldn’t be going. I think I would think long and hard about it.”
When asked how any further spread of the virus might affect Ohio's March 17 presidential primary, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said the government will work to ensure voting is safe and healthy. However, anxious voters can vote early or by mail rather than exposing themselves to crowds at their polling places. All ballots postmarked by Election Day will be counted even if they arrive later.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.