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Photo: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health; public domain.

Photo: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health; public domain.

COVID-19 pandemic, one year in— Gov. DeWine: ‘victory is in sight’

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On March 9, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the state of Ohio.

Exactly one year later, flags were ordered to fly at half-staff to honor the 17,662 Ohioans who have since lost their lives to the disease, and another 980,000 people who have tested positive.

“This has been a tough year,” DeWine said of the impending anniversary in a public address last week.

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At the same time, the state seems to be turning a corner. As vaccinations pick up speed and cases plunge, DeWine is optimistic.

“My fellow Ohioans: victory is in sight,” he said.

Last week, DeWine even laid out a benchmark to lifting the mask mandate, limits on mass gatherings and other health orders put in place last year: Once new cases fall below 50 per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, all health orders will be rescinded entirely.

“Achieving this goal is very doable,” he said.

In other positive news, with more vaccines available, the state once again expanded the list of who can get them. Starting on Thursday, March 11, those 50 and older will be eligible for a vaccine as part of Phase 2. Those with type 2 diabetes or end-stage renal disease will also be eligible on that date as part of Phase 1D.

Also this week, eligible residents can schedule their vaccine appointment at the new centralized statewide portal: Those who are on a waitlist at the Greene County Public Health website have been automatically added to the state site, according to the health department this week.

Despite the hopeful signs, the governor urged caution in his address as a more contagious variant spreads and the virus continues to kill.

“We have to keep in mind, though, that it’s still a threat out there,” he said.

DeWine’s comments last week were seemingly in response to moves by Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi last week to revoke mask mandates and indoor dining restrictions.

DeWine set out his plan for removing Ohio’s restrictions while defending masks and other precautions as still necessary, likening the situation to the last few miles of a “grueling marathon.”

“No marathon runner gives up at mile 25,” he said. “We need to finish strong.”

DeWine called masks, specifically, a “battle-tested tool” that has worked well to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and encouraged Ohioans, even those who have been vaccinated, to continue to wear them in public.

As for the target of 50 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over two weeks, that may still be a few months off. The last time Ohio was below that figure was in June 2020.

But DeWine believes the goal is “realistic,” and the state’s trajectory is promising. As of March 3, the figure was 179.6 new cases, down from 189.8 the previous week. It reached its peak on Dec. 3, 2020, at 731 new cases, and fell to 445 by Feb. 3.

“Ohio is on the right path to get us to 50,” he said.

Later, in response to a question from a reporter, DeWine ventured a guess of “maybe two months” until the goal is reached. He underscored that the way to get there is by continuing to wear masks and get a vaccine.

“If we continue to do both of these things, we’re going to get there,” he said.

DeWine added that Ohioans have done well with mask-wearing, citing a recent study showing that 93% of retail customers in the state were wearing them.

Recent case declines are tied to increases in vaccination rates across the state. More than 2 million Ohioans have had their first dose, about 17.4% of the population, and more than one million are fully vaccinated. That’s slightly below the national average of 17.7% having received a first shot. On Thursday, March 4, a record high of 66,201 Ohioans received a first dose.

The latest expansion of eligibility gives 1.4 million more Ohioans a chance to get a vaccine, including 1.2 million people who are between 50–59 years old.

With more vaccine doses expected to come into Ohio, the state is preparing to open 15 regional mass vaccination clinics.  Last week, DeWine announced the locations of such facilities, which will be capable of vaccinating 300 to 3,000 people per day. The closest clinics to Yellow Springs are the Dayton Convention Center and the Wilmington Air Park in Clinton County. DeWine said he expects an influx of vaccines at the end of March.

“As fast as this vaccine comes into Ohio, we’re going to be able to get it out,” DeWine said this week.

With continued effort, DeWine said he looks forward to a summer where life is largely back to a pre-pandemic normal.

“We’ve made significant strides in getting our lives back to normal,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a spring with graduations and proms and a summer of fairs and festivals and concerts and baseball.”

In other COVID news:

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control released new guidance for those who are fully vaccinated. They can now 1) visit with other fully vaccinated people inside without wearing a mask or social distancing, 2) visit with unvaccinated people from one household who don’t have a complicating health risk indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing, and 3) refrain from needing to quarantine or get tested following a known COVID-19 exposure if they are asymptomatic. Vaccinated people still have to wear a mask in public or when they are around those who are at higher risk and to get tested if they develop COVID-19 symptoms. Someone is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final shot.

• Four more counties in the state dropped below the COVID-19 high incidence rate, or “red” designation, over the week, bringing the total to 12. That threshold is defined by 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks. Greene County remains “red” with a figure of 138.5 per 100,000 for the week ending March 3.

• The state averaged 1,739 new cases per day for the 14 days ending March 8. To reach the level needed for all health orders to be lifted, the state needs to average 417 new cases per day for 14 days, according to calculations by a Columbus reporter.

• New cases plateaued in Greene County over the week, remaining at about 14 new cases per day, which is on par with cases in early September. According to county figures, 632 people are actively ill with COVID-19, compared to close to 2,500 people who were ill at the pandemic’s height. The county has a better per capita vaccination average than the state as a whole; 18.53% of the population has received a first shot.

• The 45387 area code added just two positive cases over the week, down from a peak of 29 in early January.

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