Is Ohio moving too quickly? Governor wins approval for phased-in approach, but some worry testing is still too limited

By Mackenzi Klemann -

LIMA — The gradual relaxation of Ohio’s stay-at-home order will test whether the DeWine administration’s efforts to significantly expand testing for COVID-19 infections will happen quickly enough to identify new cases before they spread undetected, as they did in early March.

At least 133,000 diagnostic tests have been administered in Ohio since the state’s outbreak was first detected, according to Ohio Department of Health data.

By the end of May, DeWine hopes to see as many tests run in a single week as in the past two months now that more companies are making the nasal swabs and reagents needed for diagnostic tests.

“We’re still doing this a bit too early,” said Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University. “We have slowed the rate of increase in cases, but we’re still not past the peak. We’re not on that downward slope of the curve, which is concerning to me that as we open things back up we’re just going to see another bounce of cases rather than get to that downward slope.”

“I wish we were doing this with more testing at the outset,” she said.

While DeWine hopes labs across the state will have the ability to run 133,000 tests per week by the end of May, his plan expects only 43,000 tests will be administered the first week of the relaxation, when elective surgeries, dental offices and veterinary practices are allowed to reopen.

The next week, when construction, manufacturing, distribution and general offices start to reopen, DeWine’s plan calls for another 85,600 tests. And the week after, when retail stores can reopen to the public, labs should be able to process 109,000 tests.

“I think the challenge that the governor has is that at some point you have to do something,” said Steven Martin, professor and dean of the Raabe College of Pharmacy at Ohio Northern University.

The phased-in approach, Martin said, will allow Ohio to scale up its testing and contact tracing abilities as more Ohioans return to work.

But the May 12 reopening of retail stores is still of concern, as everyone who enters the store is a potential carrier for the virus. Cloth masks, while less effective than surgical masks, will be key to protecting retail workers and those they interact with from spreading the virus further, Martin said.

Had Ohio allowed all business activity to resume May 1, modeling from The Ohio State University’s Infectious Disease Institute predicts new infections would have almost immediately surged.

“It’s not pretty in terms of daily cases,” said Mike Oglesbee, director of the Infectious Disease Institute and professor of virology and comparative pathology at Ohio State.

Those new cases would peak sometime in late June or early July, Oglesbee said, and could be worse than Ohio’s initial surge. But the phased-in approach looks much better.

But by focusing first on low-density workplaces like construction, where social distancing is easier to accomplish, Oglesbee said OSU’s latest models suggest new cases would stabilize or decrease through the end of summer, with another spike in new cases when school resumes in the fall.

“There’s uncertainty as to how large the bump will be,” he explained. “But the plan is to have testing and surveillance in place so that when these outbreaks do occur … we catch them at the point of origin and can use contact tracing to limit the spread.”

By Mackenzi Klemann

Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.

Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.

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