Hamilton County's commission president and health commissioner are urging people to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and "double down" on safety precautions.
"We know what to do," says President Denise Driehaus. "Wash your hands; stay away from each other; and mask up."
The county continues to hover on the cusp of turning from red to purple on Ohio's public health advisory scale. A purple designation means a return to a stay-at-home order, though what that might entail is uncertain.
"No one wants to shut down businesses," Driehaus said in a Wednesday morning briefing prior to a planned 5:30 State of Ohio update from Gov. Mike DeWine. "That is why we are pleading with people to wear masks because that's the strategy we can employ to keep businesses open."
Driehaus and Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman sought to highlight the county is seeing "a little stabilization" in COVID-19 cases and anecdotal evidence of increased mask wearing, two points Driehaus says she made a point of telling the governor during a conversation on Monday.
That said, infection numbers are still high, as are hospital and ICU admissions.
"Today the (reproductive value) is at 1.0 and it has actually hovered around 1.0 for the last two weeks, so this is a good sign that we are seeing a little bit of stabilization," Kesterman says. However, "in mid-June we were at 60 hospital admissions, we are now at over 175. For point of reference, in April when we first saw our first peak, we were at about 150, so still an elevated number of hospital admissions. Similar with the intensive care unit admissions, we in mid-June were at 15 intensive care unit admissions. We are now at 60 and, for point of reference, in April we were at 75. So, we're continuing to see that number creep up slightly."
Kesterman says hospitals are watching their capacity and are OK for now so there are currently no plans to reopen the emergency overflow center at the convention center.
Zip codes in the northern part of the county continue to account for the most number of cases, though Kesterman says that's starting to spread out some. You can find zip code data here, though it doesn't drill down as far as the county-wide numbers, Kesterman says, because of privacy concerns.
Community spread accounts for 86% of cases, he says, with the age groups between 20 and 39 showing the largest number of positive tests. Younger people are more mobile and mobility increases spread, Kesterman cautions, adding people in this age group should get tested and stay home if sick.
While increased testing does account for some of the increase, it doesn't cover it all and, he points out, testing doesn't affect rising hospital and ICU admission numbers as "people who get tested (and) people who don't get tested end up in the hospital in the same way."
Contact tracing continues and the county hasn't identified any outbreaks resulting from one location like a bar, restaurant or pool. Kesterman says those investigations take longer though, similar to how food-borne illness investigations at restaurants are done.
When asked about enforcing the governor's mask requirement, Kesterman says the department's tactic is to push education. "The governor's order, if you look through it closely, does not include an enforcement section. There is no opportunity for citations with a general health district. The process is actually a little bit more complicated and requires a warrant to be issued."
Masking is just one component to helping reduce spread, Kesterman says, citing one aspect he worries people may be overlooking.
"When you go home tonight and you decide to have friends over to your house, that is not included in this mask mandate but it does impact the spread of COVID-19. If you're doing these gatherings and types of events, there is other risks and it's really about all of us working on all of these together to make a change."
Jury Trials Delayed
Meanwhile, jury trials, which had been scheduled to resume July 13, remain on hold because of rising infection numbers.
"Jury trials present a special challenge given the number of people required in the courtroom," says Charles Kubicki, presiding judge of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. "Although I understand that the victims and defendants will have to wait longer for these cases to be resolved, in order for a fair trial to take place we must make sure that everyone in the courtroom is safe. Nobody should have to choose their health over the day in court."
The county prosecutor and public defender both say they agree with the decision. Other hearings and grand jury proceedings will continue as scheduled with additional health precautions such as masking and social distancing.