More than 1 in 4 people infected with the novel coronavirus in Summit County are health care workers, public health officials said Thursday, showing a higher local impact from the deadly virus on medical responders than the rate appearing statewide.
The new data emerged as Gov. Mike DeWine emphasized the need to "protect our protectors" and use all available means to secure and deliver personal protective equipment to hospital workers and other essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus battle — even as new projections show hopeful signs that efforts to contain the spread are working.
"We have tried every day to tell you what we know when we know it. We've had some questions about the curve and how much it was flattened," DeWine said at his daily Statehouse briefing. "We're seeing some of these estimates changing. You're seeing the estimates getting better, but we also have Ohioans dying every day."
As of Thursday afternoon, Summit County had 222 confirmed coronavirus cases, ranging in age from 5 to 95 years old. Of the cases, 56% are female, and 44% are male. Fifty-one people are currently hospitalized, and there have been 13 deaths.
Among the 222 cases, 63 — or 28.4% — are health care workers.
Statewide, 1,137 health care workers have tested positive, or 21% of the 5,512 cases identified in Ohio.
The state’s latest totals, also released Thursday, include 213 deaths and 1,612 hospitalizations — with 497 patients in intensive care units. The case count is a 7% increase from Wednesday. Because testing is not widely available, health officials believe many more unconfirmed cases exist at households across the state.
The state’s daily count, which is not always immediately in line with locally reported county data, shows 120 cases and eight deaths in Stark County, 116 cases and 14 deaths in Portage County, 98 cases and five deaths in Medina County, 30 cases and one death in Wayne County, 26 cases in Tuscarawas County and four cases in Ashland County.
An Ohio State University forecast model released Wednesday by the Ohio Department of Health showing that new daily cases are now expected to peak April 19 at 1,607. That’s down from a "mitigated" worst-case scenario — taking into account preventive measures enacted by the state — that had projected as many as 10,000 new cases per day during the peak period.
DeWine credited the decrease to social distancing. The governor closed schools, gyms, bars, restaurants and more last month in an attempt to slow the virus.
Staying on guard
Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, cautioned that evidence of a flattening curve does not mean Ohioans can begin letting down their guard. Infections have spread to nearly every part of the state, with cases confirmed in 84 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Most of Summit County has been touched as well.
Summit County Public Health’s latest map showing which ZIP codes have confirmed cases shows only six without laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases: 44286, 44141 and 44264 — which include Richfield, Peninsula and portions of Cuyahoga Valley National Park; 44304 and 44308 — which include parts of downtown Akron and the University of Akron campus; and 44260 in Mogadore. The map does not show the breakdown of cases within each ZIP code.
Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said during a weekly news briefing Thursday that the health department is not yet at the point of releasing the number of cases in each ZIP code because of concerns of individual cases being easily identifiable.
Skoda said the health department has done a preliminary analysis of cases broken down by race and expects to release that information in the next day or two.
According to the Summit County health department, as of Thursday morning, there were 254 long-term care residents who have tested positive in Ohio. A Summit County Public Health spokesperson said the department was not reporting deaths or facility names.
‘Most critical time’
Skoda said she was "begging" Summit County residents to follow the state’s stay-at-home order and only leave their homes for essential trips, calling the next two to three weeks "the most critical time to work together, save lives and flatten the curve for all of Summit County and the rest of Ohio."
Skoda encouraged residents who have to go out to stay 6 feet away from others, cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands often with soap and water, avoid touching the face and wear a cloth face covering in public settings.
N95 and surgical face masks should only be worn by medical providers, said Summit County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Erika Sobolewski, adding that masks should cover the nose and mouth and will prevent people from spreading respiratory droplets, not prevent them from getting the coronavirus.
Masks shouldn’t be put on children under 2 years old, anyone with trouble breathing or anyone who wouldn't be able to remove the mask on their own, Sobolewski said.
Skoda encouraged residents to find different ways to observe Easter amid the pandemic, including virtual services.
"This is a difficult time for people, but I want to plead with you to please come up with new ways to celebrate with your family and fellow congregants and parishioners," she said.
In Summit County’s hospitals as of Thursday:
• As of 1:30 p.m., Akron Children’s Hospital had zero COVID-19 patients, and the occupancy rate throughout its regional system is about 45%.
• Cleveland Clinic Akron General: COVID-19 patients had been admitted throughout the Cleveland Clinic health system as of Thursday. None of the system’s hospitals were at or over capacity. A spokesperson declined to release specific data about Akron General.
• As of 4 p.m., Summa Health was treating 21 patients with positive cases of COVID-19. A spokesperson declined to share information about occupancy rates.
• As of 10:45 a.m., there were four positive COVID-19 cases in Western Reserve Hospital.
The only way for Ohio to get back to normal is by continuing to do what they’ve been doing and that’s by staying home, DeWine said. The governor said the state is working on a "sophisticated plan" to slowly return the state to normal but that details were not yet ready to be shared.
Earlier this month DeWine issued a stay-at-home order that expires May 1. The order requires all workers deemed non-essential to stay home.
As the date draws closer, DeWine said his administration will reevaluate what can be reopened. However, it will be a "gradual opening" of businesses and institutions, the governor said.
"We’ll make a decision as early as we can," DeWine said.
Acton said a lack of testing continues to be problematic.
Around 55,000 Ohioans have been tested for the virus. That means around 10% of people tested for COVID-19 in Ohio had the disease.
Impact on minorities
Dr. Anthony Armstrong, president of The Ohio State Medical Association and a Toledo gynecologist, talked about how the virus is impacting different communities.
Acton has expressed concern this week about how resources to combat the virus are being distributed to communities of color and those who are more impoverished than others.
African-Americans are dying of the virus at a higher rate, and Armstrong said that likely has to do with health care disparities that existed prior to the pandemic. Often a lack of access to health care and misconceptions about who can catch the coronavirus, Armstrong said, has led to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on African-Americans.
"In some areas, it's harder to reach people with that message," Armstrong said. "A lot of people get messaging about health care through their schools and through their places of faith, and of course now those aren't accessible."
Acton cited Ohio House Democratic Leader Emilia Sykes of Akron as one of the state leaders at the forefront of efforts to make sure minority communities are not overlooked in the coronavirus response.
Acton, referencing a group of protesters at the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, said that she understands people are worried and afraid.
But, Acton said, "every move we are making is based in the best science."
"We’ve been determined to protect Ohioans from the very beginning," Acton said. "The steps we are taking and are continuing to take have saved lives."
The group of about 100 people gathered outside the Statehouse carried signs and called for Acton to be removed from her position.
The protesters could be heard faintly over the broadcast of Thursday’s coronavirus briefing and inside the Statehouse as DeWine spoke.
"We’re big believers of the First Amendment, and the folks who are outside have every right to be out there and they have every right to say whatever they want to say," DeWine said. "So we respect that. My job, I think, is to communicate as honestly and candidly as I can to the people of the state of Ohio."
Columbus Dispatch reporter Max Filby contributed to this report.