AKRON, Ohio – Measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, such as limits on gatherings, won’t be effective even at a countywide level because the area is too small, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said.
A statewide approach would be more effective, Skoda said.
Skoda, in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, was responding to remarks by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who said the city will not seek to extend its 30-day ban on gatherings with more than six non-household guests after it expires next week because the local approach was not enough to combat community spread throughout the region.
Skoda took the point one step further.
Even a county-wide gathering order would fall short of slowing spread throughout Ohio, she said. Because of people can easily travel in and out of a county, restrictions at a county level don’t have the reach needed to slow spread of the virus.
“Let’s say I live in Summit County, I’m an Akron resident. But my family lives in Columbus,” Skoda said. “If there were a ban on gatherings just in Summit County, the family could still gather in Columbus.
“And that’s why it’s very difficult to do these piecemeal sorts of orders and regulations and advisories,” she said. “It’s much better if it’s at a state level because then everything’s on an equal playing field.”
What are Akron’s restrictions?
Akron’s ordinance – which calls for police and health department enforcement and carries a potential $250 fine for residents hosting more than six guests or not wearing masks at smaller gatherings – went into effect Nov. 16 and expires Wednesday.
Police have not issued any fines. The city instead sought to educate people about coronavirus-related recommendations. Anecdotes provided by Horrigan suggest it appears to have deterred some residents from having friends or family over for Thanksgiving.
Were they effective?
Skoda said that her department doesn’t believe Akron’s ordinance had “any real impact,” but that it was difficult to gauge based on only three weeks’ worth of data, during which time Summit County went to a purple Level 4 on Ohio’s statewide advisory system based on indicators of community spread and hospitals nearing capacity.
Horrigan said a regional approach was necessary since so many non-residents regularly come to Akron.
And since some Ohioans travel between counties, a gathering ordinance in Summit County would also be less effective than a statewide order, Skoda said.
Could a countywide order be implemented?
Yes, but enforcement could be difficult, Skoda said.
Summit County’s health department is not as powerful as municipalities or the state in enforcing such measures, Skoda said.
“We could have had a gathering ordinance with a $100 fine, but powers in cities and municipalities are far more clearly defined,” Skoda said. “We would not have the enforcement power, too – we would just be fining people. And that’s not the intent.
“Our intent is not to just fine people, it’s really the education that goes with it and trying to get people to be motivated. Again, it’s that same situation, that if we’re the only ones doing it, then you end up going to Columbus. It has to be at a higher level.”
What happened with tobacco sales?
Skoda said the county was in a similar situation a few years ago when it sought to ban the sale of tobacco to people under the age of 21.
“We were going community to community to get folks to do it so that we could actually have some enforcement with it and some municipal powers with it,” she said. “We had almost the whole county, but we had three [municipalities] that hadn’t signed on yet. But then the state passed it, and now it’s just accepted. There’s just something about an ordinance, an order, a resolution, a law, a state law that makes a huge difference.”
What has the state done?
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has issued a statewide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. with several exceptions, including for fans who attend professional sporting events, such as Browns games where 12,000 guests are allowed.
DeWine on Thursday revealed a 21-day, 12-part “protocol” of recommendations for people to follow which included things that Ohioans have been hearing since March, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
What’s driving the community spread?
Horrigan had said “data” shows that community spread of the virus is happening in homes but did not indicate what data he was referring to. A spokeswoman for the mayor said it was based on contact tracing by the Summit County Public Health department.
Skoda said she didn’t have specific numbers immediately available to indicate that the majority of spread is happening at household gatherings, but said many of the contact tracers are hearing anecdotally that people are contracting the virus from private gatherings, whether they’re at a home, restaurant or other venue.
“Right now, we have outbreak numbers. We could tell you how many outbreaks there’ve been, which is more than two persons that have the illness, but those aren’t in private residences,” Skoda said. “Those are in businesses and organizations – mostly in manufacturing and any sort of work environment, schools, that sort of stuff.”
A lot of people who recently tested positive reported they attended a Thanksgiving gathering, but some people are hesitant to admit that, Skoda said. She provided an anecdote of an asymptomatic young child who passed out the silverware at Thanksgiving and everyone got sick.
College students returning home from campus for winter break also are fueling the surge.
“A 20-year-old came home, brought it to her house – the mother got it, the grandfather ended up dying,” Skoda said. “We’ve heard that a lot. That’s the risk of that spread. That’s why we say, ‘Stay with your bubble.’ But where are your kids going to go? What are they going to do? Are they going to be homeless for six weeks?”
Is there enough testing?
As Summit County enters a second week at the purple risk level, Skoda said she’s especially concerned about the availability of testing in order to determine the overall positivity rate in the community.
On Dec. 4 and 6, the county provided free coronavirus testing to 2,305 people, and the positivity rate was about 25%, she said.
“That’s way too high,” Skoda said. “We know that there’s a lot of community spread right now.”
What are other concerns?
The daily rate of deaths has increased by about 600%.
“At the beginning of November, it was about 1.1 deaths per day, and now we’re somewhere around 6.6 deaths per day, so it’s becoming far more severe…
“It’s going to be a rough, and I mean a rough January,” she said. “We’ve had unbelievable case counts and it’s the Thanksgiving spike. It’s been crazy. We really, really need to think about Christmas seriously, or it’s going to be a long January and February.”