State cautiously optimistic about COVID data after reopening

Ohio Department of Health officials expressed cautious optimism as Ohio, unlike some other states, has not seen a larger surge of COVID-19 infections in the weeks after many businesses reopened.

But Brian Fowler, epidemiologist and chief data officer at ODH, said it’s too soon to reach definite conclusions because of how long the illness can take to manifest in newly infected people.

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“We’ve seen some trends downward, which is really good,” Fowler said Wednesday of new case diagnoses. “The jury’s still out on reopening because it takes up to two weeks to develop illness, then it can take another couple weeks to get serious illness, so we’re still waiting to see.”

Ohio has seen a gradual reopening of businesses in the past six weeks — general office and manufacturing over five weeks ago, retail stores and hair salons four weeks ago, indoor restaurants three weeks ago, fitness centers and pools just over two weeks ago and child care centers 10 days ago.

ODH’s “current trends” data showed more than 600 new COVID-19 cases were reported each day May 21-23 (three weeks ago), then 500-plus cases May 24-26, then 400-plus for most of the next 10 days. From last Saturday to Tuesday, those numbers dipped into the mid-300s per day, before going back up to the low 400s Wednesday and Thursday.

“I would say it’s looking promising that we’re not seeing large increases, but we’re closely looking at the data to make sure the trend continues,” Fowler said.

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Bloomberg News reported this week that multiple states are seeing rising coronavirus problems after reopening. Florida hit a new high for cases in a seven-day period this week, hospitalizations in Texas hit their highest point of the pandemic, and California hospitalizations rose on nine days in a 10-day span, according to Bloomberg.

Along with reopening concerns, health officials in Ohio and other states are watching for any surge in COVID-19 cases in the wake of widespread racial justice protests over the past two weeks, during which many protesters stood very close together for long stretches, some without facial masks.

Through Thursday, Montgomery County had not reported a new coronavirus-related death in more than 10 days, according to ODH data, while Greene County had reported only 1 in that span.

Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County, said Ohio’s “reopening” process does not mean the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

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Montgomery County continues to see new diagnosed cases — generally between 3 and 20 new cases each day for the past seven weeks. An exception was June 4, when the county had 31 new cases, its most of any day this year.

Fowler said ODH would keep an eye on the Montgomery County numbers, but he said the fact that the June 4 spike was followed by days with 18, 6, 7 and 4 new cases, respectively, alleviated some worries.

State officials are watching the Dayton area’s “R0” number, or replication factor, defining how many individuals an average person infected with COVID-19 will make sick. An ODH chart Thursday showed all regions of Ohio at R0 values between 0.6 and 0.9 except for the west-central Ohio region — Montgomery, Greene, Clark, Champaign, Miami, Shelby, Darke and Preble counties — at 1.07.

Gov. Mike DeWine said Ohio “R0” values were as high as 1.9 in March.

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“Slight increases we’re seeing in several parts of the state are certainly visible here, and our health department is keeping an eye on the Dayton region,” DeWine said. “Even the Dayton number I don’t think is yet (cause) for alarm, but that’s what the numbers are. You obviously want your numbers going down and you want your numbers below 1.”

Suffoletto said whether the “R0” increases or not doesn’t change the interventions Public Health is pushing, or what the public should be doing.

More businesses and attractions are opening in Ohio — movie theaters, museums and recreation centers were allowed to open this week, with amusement parks and casinos up next week.

Suffoletto expressed concern that people have started to “slack off” on safety precautions such as masks, frequent hand washing and social distancing over time, increasing the risk of spreading the disease.

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He said people need to shop, eat, work and do things outside the home, but the threat remains and he added the best protection right now is staying away from other people as much as possible.

“The more people you come into contact with, the more chances there are to spread it,” Suffoletto said. “Just because things are open doesn’t mean you should go and do those things.”

Fowler said daily death counts from COVID-19 in Ohio also have been lower in June. But they don’t follow as clean a trend-line as case numbers in recent weeks, bouncing from days with 40-50 new reported deaths to days with only 15 or 16 deaths, and then back again. The past two days have been in the 30s.

Fowler said ODH tracks coronavirus data day-by-day in two ways, neither of which is perfect. One is “current trends” data that’s based on which day a case is reported to the state (regardless of whether the person fell ill days or weeks earlier). That creates a comparison tool for the most recent days.

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The other is by “illness onset date,” which marks when an infected person first noticed symptoms. Fowler said the onset numbers offer the best information, but they generally have a significant time lag, from the first time a person feels symptoms, to going to a doctor a few days later, then waiting for test results, followed by reporting to local and finally state health officials.

Fowler said previous testing shortages should no longer be skewing Ohio’s data, as about 9,000 tests are being administered per day, and the state has capacity for more.

In the meantime, Fowler said ODH continues to track COVID-19 data and share it widely on their website, as Ohioans decide how much they’ll return to normal daily activities.

“There were a few things open a month ago, but we’ve opened a lot more since then, so we’re waiting to see how this all plays out,” Fowler said.

Ohio COVID-19 reported cases by day

May 21: 731

May 22: 627

May 23: 614

May 24: 503

May 25: 566

May 26: 529

May 27: 433

May 28: 476

May 29: 651

May 30: 468

May 31: 479

June 1: 471

June 2: 366

June 3: 442

June 4: 490

June 5: 476

June 6: 353

June 7: 365

June 8: 361

June 9: 325

June 10: 413

June 11: 429

Source: Ohio Department of Health