NOTE: Our March 19 edition is dedicated to full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak and how it’s disrupted everyday life in Lorain County and the rest of Ohio. Pick it up at local grocery and convenience stores.
“We’ve never seen a situation exactly like this.”
Dr. Amy Acton, head of the Ohio Department of Health, wasn’t kidding.
Fearing a contagion that if left unchecked could kill more than three in every 100 Ohioans — around 400,000 people — the state took drastic action last week.
By executive order, Gov. Mike DeWine banned gatherings of 100 or more people, and by Monday the number had dwindled to 50. President Donald Trump suggested limiting “crowds” to just 10 on Monday, but stopped short of issuing his own order.
“We cannot be in close proximity to each other,” DeWine said in a March 12 press conference.
The ban, until further notice, effectively shuts down parades, fairs, festivals, sporting events, theater productions and any other large meetings.
It does not affect airports, grocery stores, retailers, shopping malls, or other places where large numbers of people “are in transit,” DeWine said.
There are also exceptions for weddings, funerals, religious services, protests and other gatherings that would specifically be protected by the First Amendment.
At first, voting did not meet the definition of a “mass gathering,” said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, but that changed as state officials took extraordinary steps to bar in-person voting and extend absentee balloting.
The governor also closed K-12 schools, at first calling it “an extended spring break,” and then calling on teachers and students to continue working remotely by any means possible.
He ordered classes to end effective at the end of the day Monday, but many rushed to close their doors ahead of that deadline. Amherst and Wellington were among the districts that opted to have kids report one last time Friday — Firelands and Oberlin held out, but ultimately chose not to have students report Monday at all.
School is canceled through at least April 3. The closures may be extended if needed, DeWine said.
“We will review it as we go. We frankly have no idea at this point whether we’ll extend it beyond that,” he said.
Unless a child has a medical problem, the risk of death from COVID-19 is not very high.
Justifying school closures, DeWine said children are potential carriers that can spread the disease to the vulnerable.
The extreme measures were taken as state health officials confirmed a fifth coronavirus patient, a 55-year-old Trumble County man who was admitted to the intensive care unit.
DeWine and Acton said the case was one more signal that COVID-19 had become widespread throughout the state.
Officials expect more and more cases because the disease can take two weeks to manifest symptoms, and because it takes time to test which patients have normal influenza strains and which have more serious coronavirus infections.
Based on what has been witnessed in other nations, COVID-19 cases can double every six days.
When the forced “social distancing” measures were announced last Thursday, there were 30 negative tests, 52 people under investigation and hundreds who were told to self-quarantine across the state, according to Acton. That number boomed over the weekend, and by Monday there were 50 confirmed cases and 14 hospitalizations in Ohio.
At the very least, one percent of the population was already carrying the virus, she said during the state’s press conference. That’s more than 100,000 people — and by Tuesday, the estimate had risen to 300,000.
“These are the hard decisions,” she said, but will “absolutely save lives.”
“We are all sort of waking up to our new reality,” she said.
“We are basically slowly shutting down most of our structures of society.”
The goal of the extreme measures is to keep the number of coronavirus cases down enough so they don’t overwhelm Ohio’s hospitals, Acton said.
Medical personnel are the front line and “need to be MASH-like,” deciding who can ride it out and who needs serious treatment, she said.
DeWine said his executive orders were made not only to protect ourselves, but loved ones and complete strangers.
“Everyone has to think about other people. That’s why this is so very important,” he said.
“We understand the sacrifice this is going to entail, but this is the best medical advice we can get by people who study viruses, and we know it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Acton said coronavirus in Ohio may peak in late April to mid-May.
“This will be the thing this generation remembers,” not unlike 9/11, she said.