County virus numbers only piece of puzzle


By Josh Ellerbrock - jellerbrock@limanews.com



LIMA — In just over a month’s time, Putnam County went from zero COVID-19 cases to having one of the highest confirmed COVID-19 death rates in the state due to its 12 recorded deaths.

Putnam County Health Commissioner Kim Rieman, however, hasn’t let the numbers change how the county’s health department has reacted to the outbreak. Contact tracing continues, and the need to social distance remains the same. Testing has also become more available, but it’s still limited.

“Locally, we don’t get caught too much on the numbers. We have a high number for our county when we compare ourselves to other counties our size, but a lot of those cases come from our outbreak,” Rieman said. “(County data) really doesn’t change what we do.”

County comparisons between case rates per 100,000 people show some discrepancies between the viral spread, but due to lack of testing and some localized outbreaks, county officials aren’t focusing too hard on distinctions until more data has been gathered and finalized.

Cases, hospitalizations, deaths

Tami Gough, prevention and health promotion service director with Allen County Public Health, often hears the same question asked by Allen County residents: How many locals are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19?

She doesn’t provide a number, because she doesn’t know. The Ohio Disease Reporting System on the coronavirus doesn’t require that information, Gough said, and it takes extra time to gather it.

“It’s not that we’re hiding it. It might just not be available,” she said.

Since Ohio reported its first coronavirus case, counties have provided limited data points on each confirmed case through the statewide system. Once someone tests positive, counties tally the case, any subsequent hospitalizations and in worst cases, death. Age and sex on each patient is also released publicly.

Additional details, however, aren’t required to be tracked.

Part of the reason is due to resources. If more information is cataloged per case, each case takes more time and resources to catalog. As a result, only the most useful data for those doing the recording ends up being recorded.

Relatedly, the number of those currently hospitalized in the county, Gough said, just isn’t a necessary data point for county public health officials.

“It can be done, but is it the right use of time right now?” Gough said. “The messaging isn’t going to change. We know the virus is here, and we know what to do to protect us.”

State officials may take a more detailed look to tease out trends by looking at all the state data in aggregrate, but the single daily localized snapshot provided by each county’s daily case numbers probably won’t vary so widely to require major changes in response, especially if a high number can be attributed to a hotspot.

Admittedly, not all county health departments follow the same format. At Mercer County Health District, the county does report three additional data points — the number of total recovered cases, pending cases and negative tests for the coronavirus.

Jason Menchhofer, Mercer County Health District administrator, said the extra data helps inform Mercer residents to what is going on locally. He has also seen residents warp the meaning behind the numbers for their own purposes.

“Because the numbers have climbed quite a bit, you can take those numbers and really kind of say what you want them to say,” Menchhofer said.

In the last 24 hours, Mercer County reported a spike in cases that tripled its total case. Officials, however, have a good reason for the uptick; a testing lab that had hit a bottleneck had delivered a group of of backdated testing results that came back positive.

“We report numbers daily, but we’re at the mercy of the flow of the labs,” Menchhofer said.

Again, the spike isn’t changing what the county health district is doing. The need to encourage social distancing and practice good hygiene is the same as it’s been since March.

“We’re not through it yet. We want people to keep it up,” Menchhofer. “We had one to three cases a day. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible, then we got that big jump. It reminds us that we still have work to do.”

Testing

County data has also been shifted due in part to an early lack of testing availability. In March, testing had only been available for those going through the worst of the symptoms, which made it much more likely that those being tested would eventually die of COVID-19.

Today, that policy has been relaxed as more testing is available. Rieman expects that Putnam County’s high death rate will go down as positive tests from your more average patient starts informing county data totals.

Inversely, increases in testing availability may also provide a bump in each county’s overall numbers as the state opens up restaurants and bars. When the Ohio Department of Health began to upgrade its testing capacity, it also began by expanding their teams of contact tracers to prep for the upward trend-line.

“Our role in the big picture is the contact tracing,” Gough said. “When there’s identification of a positive case, then we do contact tracing.”

Either way, Gough said the next few weeks will be an experiment as states all try to open up in different ways without incident. And once it’s all done, they’ll be looking at the data several months from now to see who did what well.

By then, the numbers on a county level might be a little more practical.

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By Josh Ellerbrock

jellerbrock@limanews.com

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.

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