LIMA — Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday warned that the next three weeks could be the most-dire point of the pandemic as Ohio rides its largest wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations into what is traditionally the busiest holiday season of the year, a dangerous trend that could cause many unnecessary deaths right as coronavirus vaccination programs are about to begin.
DeWine extended Ohio’s 10 p.m. curfew for another 21 days and unveiled a new 10-point public health messaging program encouraging Ohioans to stay home whenever possible.
But the governor stopped short of imposing new restrictions on indoor dining, bars and fitness centers that he considered several weeks ago, despite increasingly urgent warnings that the situation in Ohio is untenable as hospitals and intensive care units are seeing an exponential increase in COVID-19 patients that could upend access to routine and emergency healthcare.
“What each of us does in the next 21 days will sets us on the path, good or bad, for the next year,” DeWine said. “We cannot afford on the very eve of a safe and effective vaccination to further overwhelm our hospital and healthcare providers with a holiday tsunami.”
Early evidence suggests at least some Ohioans avoided Thanksgiving get-togethers.
Lima hospitals have not reported an increase in COVID-19 admissions attributable to holiday dinners or gatherings in the two weeks since Thanksgiving, according to hospitalization data shared with The Lima News on Wednesday.
While new admissions traced to the holiday weekend could still occur over the next several days, much of the Lima region has identified fewer coronavirus cases since Thanksgiving than in the weeks leading up to the holiday, when cases were still rising exponentially, suggesting that enough families may have heeded public health warnings at a time when the region was still considered the epicenter of Ohio’s coronavirus epidemic to avoid a crisis scenario.
“We owe a thank you to the public for partnering with us to try to at least keep the spread stable,” said Dr. Matt Owens, chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, which has seen its COVID-19 patient census decrease by more than 30% since its peak during the week of Thanksgiving.
But at peak, Lima hospitals and those in the surrounding counties were treating more than 150 COVID-19 patients at once.
And even with the recent decline, hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain high enough that an influx in new patients could overwhelm local healthcare capacity, while hospitals across Ohio are experiencing similar or higher demand and may not be able to help should hospitals here no longer have the space or staff to meet demand.
DeWine on Thursday suggested that a new federal relief bill similar to the CARES Act passed in the spring could influence his decision to impose new restrictions, calling on Congress to make a deal quickly.
“We’re now moving forward into the most crucial time we have without that safety net, and we need it, so we hope Congress passes it,” DeWine said.
New unemployment claims in Ohio are already rising and many Ohioans are now receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or extended benefits, special programs intended for displaced workers whose wages are too low to qualify for state jobless benefits or who have been out of work for too long to claim traditional benefits. Both of those programs are set to end this month.
Without a relief bill, DeWine has instead relied on various pleas to the public to stay home for all but essential errands and work.
The latest version unveiled Thursday is a list of 10 recommendations Ohioans are encouraged to practice in December, including invocations to stay home and work from home whenever possible, limit travel, celebrate the holidays at home and avoid eating or drinking with anyone outside a person’s immediate household.