With the coronavirus outbreak widening at Ohio’s prisons, Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday said the state must do everything it can to protect the public, inmates and prison staff.
He outlined new steps to hasten the release of a small number of inmates whose release dates are nearing or whose health circumstances create an acute danger as the deadly virus circulates.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s count of confirmed coronavirus cases grew to 4,782 and the death toll rose to 167, the state health department said. The caseload is a 7% increase from Monday’s total.
Among the cases, 1,354 people are hospitalized and 371 of those patients are being treated in intensive care units.
The state’s announced count, which does not always immediately match up with locally reported totals, shows 199 cases with 12 deaths in Summit County (the county health department later updated its case count to 200), 110 cases with seven deaths in Stark County, 88 cases with three deaths in Medina County, 101 cases with seven deaths in Portage County; 29 cases in Wayne County and three cases in Ashland County. Confirmed cases have been documented in 81 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
A map released by the state health department showed a large swath of Portage County and some adjacent areas in Stark and Summit counties are part of an emerging "strong" cluster of cases developing,
Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said officials are working tirelessly behind the scenes to combat COVID-19.
Acton said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted has spearheaded the search for blood testing that could identify which Ohioans have antibodies and may have already had and recovered from the virus. That kind of testing is what will help get Ohio out of the COVID-19 outbreak, Acton said.
Acton spoke briefly Tuesday about forecast models for the virus in Ohio. She said that "none of them are perfect alone" and that they don’t predict the outcome but Ohioans’ actions do.
That’s why social distancing is so important, Acton said. That’s evident by the fact that actions taken have allowed for hospitals to stay far below capacity, Acton said.
She told Ohioans that they are "winning the war" against COVID-19.
"What we now know here in Ohio and around the world is [distancing] truly works," Acton said.
While social distancing in public has gone a long way to slow the spread of coronavirus, it’s challenging to distance people from each other in some closer-quarters living settings, DeWine acknowledged.
Western Reserve Masonic Community, for example, a senior living community in Medina, said Tuesday that four of its residents have tested positive for COVID-19.
DeWine called the response in nursing homes and other long-term care and elderly living communities across Ohio "a work in progress." He said officials need to make sure that nursing homes know who to call if a problem arises.
DeWine said the prisons also present a challenge.
"We must do all we can to protect prison staff," DeWine said. "The vast vast majority of them cannot work from home. We need them. We appreciate them very much."
Around 141 inmates from minimal security facilities could be released under steps DeWine outlined.
The prisoners are eligible to be released per Ohio’s Overcrowding Emergency statute and have a release date on or before July 13, DeWine said during his daily press briefing on the virus. The governor encouraged the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee to give those 141 prisoners immediate attention.
Another 26 prisoners over the age of 60 who have at least one chronic health issue could also be released, the governor said. These inmates under consideration have served at least half of their sentence.
DeWine said he does not have the ability to commute sentences all at once but is asking judges and prosecutors associated with the cases to waive a 60-day notice that is usually provided to victims’ families.
Then, cases can be taken directly to the parole board. The parole board is prepared to start meeting Friday to address these matters, DeWine said.
DeWine said prisoners under consideration for release are not habitual offenders, have not been convicted of murderer, domestic violence, sexual offenses, terrorism and more.
DeWine has said prisoners who will be under consideration for release because of the virus include those who are serving time for nonviolent offenses and those who might be getting close to their release date anyway.
The moves to release some inmates comes amid outbreaks at two state prisons.
At least five prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution and five at Pickaway Correctional Institution have tested positive for the virus. A total of 27 staff members, mostly in Marion, also have tested positive.
DeWine praised the state department of corrections, saying director Annette Chambers-Smith had done "a very good job" at keeping the virus out despite the inevitability that COVID-19 would make its way inside the facilities.
Among the "shout outs" that DeWine delivered Tuesday, he showed off a Kent State University necktie and saluted the school and its alumni. The governor has been taking a moment at the start of his news conferences to highlight Ohio colleges and universities in recent days.
Max Filby of the Columbus Dispatch and Emily Mills of the Akron Beacon Journal contributed to this report.