Portage County COVID-19 alert level increases to red

On the day when Portage County's COVID-19 threat level went from orange to red, there were diners scattered around Downtown Kent and a mixture of pedestrians masked and unmasked.

Nearly three dozen COVID-19 cases linked to Kent State University have pushed Portage County from orange to red last week on Ohio's Public Health Advisory Alert map.

During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine said the cases come from off-campus housing settings.

"The majority of new cases are being driven by cases in off-campus housing and to a lesser degree Greek housing," said DeWine of the spread. "So far in September, 51% of Portage County cases are in people who are younger than 29."

In an email sent to Portage County health officials, Ohio Department of Health Interim Director Lance Himes says that the Kent State cases contribute to about one-third of overall county cases in the past two weeks.

Counties are moved to level Red when they meet four or five of seven indicators.

Portage has met four indicators:

  • New cases per capita (63.4 cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks)
  • Sustained increase in new cases (5.6 average cases on Aug. 26 to 10.9 by Sept. 4)
  • Proportion of cases not in a congregate setting
  • Sustained increase in outpatient visits for COVID-like illness (6.3 average visits on Sept. 10 to 9.3 on Sept. 15)
Portage County Health District Press Release

"Knowing that Portage County has moved to red on the Public Health Advisory System, I would like to remind Portage County residents of the importance of taking extra precautions when participating in activities outside your home in order to reduce the amount of contact with the general public," said Joseph Diorio, Portage County Health Commissioner.

Ryan Shackelford, director of the Portage County Emergency Management Agency, said his office does not plan to take any immediate action in response to the change in status, but he said he continues to watch the data and expressed confidence the county is well-prepared for a wider outbreak.

In an email to the Kent State community, university reopening committee chair Manfred van Dulmen said that there will be several changes to the operating procedures on the Kent campus, but that changes will not affect in-person classes. 

Beginning Friday and until further notice, all dining locations will serve takeout only and only students living on campus may enter residence halls.

Kent Health Department spokesman Michael Anguilano III said enforcement by the police will continue. 

"The police are going to intervene when they feel they're able to," he said. "We're going to continue to provide as much education as we can."

Anguilano said Kent State University would have more authority than the city to enforce student compliance with health guidelines, and high school sports and other school activities come under the jurisdiction of local school boards.

Additionally, any travel out of state and beyond by the Kent State community must be reported to the COVID Response Team prior to departure by calling 330-672-2525. Community members should contact the response team if they have been exposed to, diagnosed with or show symptoms of COVID-19.

As a result of the risk alert, Kent has temporarily suspended its Downtown Outdoor Recreation Area, which allowed visitors to the downtown to consume alcoholic beverages outside in a specified area.

Portage County superintendents received word of the change Thursday morning from Diorio and quickly began assessing their responsible restart plans and determining next steps. 

Crestwood will transition to a hybrid learning model starting Monday, and Toth told families that principals would be having emergency meetings after school on Thursday. All employees will report to work as scheduled. 

Streetsboro Superintendent Michael Daulbaugh said that his district is currently offering in-person learning five days a week for all students and will continue to operate that way despite the increase.

"We put in our restart plan that we're going to use the county color as just one metric to decide whether we're in person, hybrid or fully remote. The other metrics we look at are student attendance, staff attendance and COVID positive rates in the buildings and in the district," Daulbaugh said. 

As of Thursday afternoon, student attendance was at least 90%, staff attendance was at least 80%, there had been one active staff case in the past 14 days and zero active student cases in the last 14 days, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.

"The staff attendance is pretty important because there's a significant substitute shortage, so if we don't have a class covered, we have to split it up and still keep social distancing. Right now though, with only one active case in 14 days, the plan is to continue five days a week until other metrics go in the wrong direction," Daulbaugh said. 

He added that there were no planned changes to sports or extracurriculars. Changes to sports would be a game-time decision, he said. 

Windham is currently fully remote due to a staff member testing positive at the beginning of the school year. The district was set to return to hybrid mode on Monday, and Superintendent Aireane Curtis said that because there are no increases in Windham, they are following through on that plan. 

Southeast is currently in a hybrid model and will continue that route, Superintendent Bob Dunn said. The district planned to start the year in the every-other-day model and then transition to full in-person learning on Oct. 5.

"In our townships, we have not had increased level of concern, so we're moving forward with the same plan. With only half the kids, we can do social distancing of 6 feet or more pretty much everywhere and we'll continue to do that," Dunn said. 

"How the red might impact us is that we may take a closer look at that Oct. 5 date and extend the modified schedule beyond Oct. 5."

James A. Garfield Superintendent Ted Lysiak announced Thursday afternoon that the district would go to a hybrid model for two weeks starting Monday. That model has groups of students alternating in-person days.

Waterloo is continuing to offer fully in-person classes because there have not been any cases in Atwater or Randolph townships, Superintendent Shawn Braman said. Additionally, 25% of its student population opted for the online learning option this semester, and so the district is able to maintain social distancing guidelines with the decreased in-person attendance. 

Aurora is continuing its fully in-person learning, but will now work to further enhance safety procedures, Superintendent Michael Roberto said.

Some of those enhancements may include increased scheduled handwashing at the elementary school, required hand sanitization upon entry into any classroom; staggered release times, increased cleaning of high-touch areas or decreased elementary school "carpet time."

In addition to normal precautions, including self-assessing your health, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, the state urges people living in counties designated as red to decrease in-person interactions with others, consider necessary travel only and limit attending gatherings of any number.

State Rep. Randi Clites of Ravenna encouraged her constituents to follow coronavirus-related safety procedures and said she would continue to work with local leaders, health officials and the governor's office to "find the best path forward to lowering cases, improving access to testing and keeping our community safe." 

Anguilano said Summit County managed to reduce its threat level from red to a lower level, and Portage County can do the same, but it will take vigilance.

"They enacted stronger messaging, made a stronger effort to push the masking and social distancing in a lot of their big areas," he said. "It led to results. Now every area around Portage County is lower than us. It's not very hard to move back down if we abide by these public health guidelines."

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com and @bobgaetjens_rc. Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, kkano@recordpub.com or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.