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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Franklin County First In Ohio To Reach Highest Level Of COVID-19 Severity

A view of the downtown Columbus skyline from Franklinton.
Mary Rathke
A view of the downtown Columbus skyline from Franklinton.

Franklin County is the first and only county in the state to be elevated to a level four "purple" health emergency, the most severe indicator on Ohio's Public Health Advisory map.

Franklin County, which recently issued a "stay at home" advisory urging residents to avoid inessential activities, had been listed as a level three "red" county on the map for quite some time. The color-coded system ranks counties by outbreak severity based on indicators such as new cases per capita, emergency room visits, hospital admissions, outpatient visits, and ICU bed occupancy.

Thursday's increase to purple "means they have flagged six or more indicators for at least two weeks," Gov. Mike DeWine explained at a coronavirus press conference. "This is a sign we're starting to see sustained impacts on our health care services, impacts on our hospitals."

Several major hospital systems in the Columbus area moved recently to ban most visitors, as they did in the spring. More nursing homes are also reporting COVID-19 cases among residents, as well.

The state's system urges Franklin County residents to stay home, except for getting food and supplies. But it is not accompanied by any mandates or additional restrictions from the state.

"We have not put anything in that order, there's nothing in regard to purple counties," DeWine said. "What we have done is, through our color code, tried to inform local decision makers, whether it's the mayor, whether it's the council, whether it's the county commissioner, whether it's school boards, about what's going on in that county."

While Franklin is the first county to reach purple, others may be close behind: Lake, Lorain and Montgomery counties are at risk of rising levels as early as next week. 

Across the state, dozens of counties have even greater spread than Franklin. Four counties – Mercer, Putnam, Lake and Allen – have COVID-19 rates higher than 1,000 new cases per 100,000 people.

"In the last two weeks, one out of every 100 persons in that county has tested positive," DeWine said of those counties.

This is also the first week since the pandemic began that Ohio reports no "yellow" counties, the lowest level of concern.

The advisory from Columbus and Franklin County officials takes effect on Friday, and lasts for 28 days. It recommends that people do not leave their homes except for important errands like getting food or medical care, to not hold holiday gatherings outside of their immediate household, and avoid traveling in or out of state.

On the state level, DeWine has announced a curfewto take effect Thursday night, which orders businesses to stay closed and people to stay home from 10 p.m.-5 a.m. for the next three weeks. The curfew contains exemptions for going to work, the hospital, or getting food or medical care, and allows restaurants to continue delivery and takeout services.

Copyright 2020 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.
Gabe Rosenberg