As Cases Surge, Mahoning Health Commissioner Urges Vigilance

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The surge of COVID-19 cases in Mahoning County in recent weeks is largely due to community spread, health commissioner Ryan Tekac said Thursday morning.

In an update to the Mahoning County Commissioners, the head of Mahoning County Public Health said that the county last week set a record for the number of new cases in a day with 65 diagnoses. The previous record of 62 was set in March in the early days of the pandemic.

“We’re starting to see spread within family units. Using myself as an example, if I get sick, I spread it to my wife. If we make the decision to visit my sister, then I give it to her, my brother-in-law and my nephews. Then, because my nephews are in schools, there’s the potential to spread it in a school setting,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing now.”

There have also been a series of outbreaks that have led to dozens of people in Mahoning County contracting the coronavirus. One case was an out-of-town wedding that led to roughly 25 infections and one death. There have also been outbreaks in “factory settings,” he added.

“In one in particular, they weren’t wearing facial coverings over the summer because of the hot weather and that carried over into the fall,” Tekac said. “Now, someone came in sick and there are 22 cases, a number of call-offs, two hospitalizations and the plant is considering a 14-day shutdown to curb the spread inside the plant.”

Both Tekac and the three Mahoning County Commissioners noted that they’ve seen the general public become more lax in adherence to safety measures. As a result, Mahoning County was upgraded last week to a Red rating on the state’s Public Health Advisory System, the second highest rating, below Purple.

“I’m praying that we don’t get there and we won’t as long as people pay attention. I was somewhere Saturday and you’d think it was open season. People were all over the place and I didn’t see social distancing or masks,” said Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti. “I don’t want us to go Purple because that means everything closes down. I want us to at least stay where we are.”

Tekac noted that when orders requiring facial coverings to be worn were issued and when Gov. Mike DeWine urged Ohioans to wear masks, there was a drop in the daily number of new cases a couple of weeks later, showing a slowdown after the virus’ two-week incubation period was up.

 “Now that people are getting relaxed – either with families or out in public – you’re starting to see that number climb back up,” he said. “Our hope is the community comes together with the basic health measures – social distancing, wearing a facial covering, staying home when you’re sick – knowing that we’re in the red. We need to come together and do what’s right. As leaders in our government, we can only take it so far. It’s really up to the community and how they react.”

The surge in cases, he added, has also strained his department’s contact tracing efforts. Early on, as Mahoning County Public Health suspended some programs, workers from those areas were able to work as contact tracers to see who those diagnosed with COVID-19 could have spread it to. Now that many programs have resumed, those same workers are working both duties and are getting fatigued, he said. Mahoning County Public Health has reached out to the state Department of Health, which offers state-assigned tracers and two will arrive next week.

The agency receives about five complaints per day about businesses not following the requirement for employees to wear masks and stay socially distant when possible, Tekac said, but said the business community overall is “doing a great job.”

“We have to consider that some people have an exemption, so when complaints do come in there’s the compassion piece that comes in,” he says. “There may be a legitimate reason. We’ve gotten complaints and then on follow up the employee has a written exemption.”

If a health department official goes into a business after a complaint and sees violations, they work to educate the business. If complaints continue, they then turn to local law enforcement to continue those discussions. The final step is reporting the business to the Ohio Investigative Unit, which conducts an undercover investigation of the business. 

So far, Tekac said, only business has been reported to the Ohio Investigative Unit, though Mahoning County Public Health has not heard the result of that investigation.

“This virus doesn’t have a jurisdiction. To use the catch phrase, we’re all in this together, so we’ve all been working with each other to make sure people all over the county are on the same page, getting the same message, getting the same enforcement and getting the same kind of trace investigations,” he said of working with a wide swath of agencies and organizations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

The next big step the department is keeping an eye on is a vaccine for the coronavirus. Mahoning County Public Health doesn’t know when a vaccine will be available, but will be ready when the state begins its vaccination program.

“We don’t know when it’s going to happen. I do know the state of Ohio has sent their plan for mass vaccination to the CDC, so what I can tell you is that once we get it here in Mahoning County and we know how it’ll be phased in, Mahoning County Public Health and Youngstown City Health are ready to stand up and have those activation events,” he said.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.