There’s no doubt Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton both deserve praise for their proactive moves to save lives in recent weeks.
With the coronavirus beginning to spread rapidly in our communities, they listened to the science and facts, made bold decisions at the right moment and managed to get most Ohioans to accept social distancing as a necessary reality.
While we’ll never know how bad the pandemic could have become, it’s clear serious COVID-19 illnesses and deaths have been greatly reduced. Nor has Ohio’s health system been overrun to date as we saw in New York City or Italy.
Unfortunately, what’s been glossed over in DeWine and Acton’s daily briefings is the timeliness of the state’s data and its decision to withhold facts we believe are critical to understanding what’s really happening.
For weeks, the DeWine Administration and most county health departments have been suppressing basic information on the impact of COVID-19 at long-term care facilities despite a promise to be “transparent’ as recently as last week.
Too few centers have voluntarily and publicly reported their struggles with keeping patients safe from this deadly virus. Of course, the presence of cases does not mean the staff provides poor care. It’s a reality of the danger posed by an invisible enemy, especially to the elderly.
Responding to media pressure, DeWine said Acton would issue an executive order requiring such facilities to tell patients and their families within 24 hours when a patient or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. This should have been the standard since day one.
DeWine’s announcement was greeted as good news by many, but it quickly went south after the governor conceded the next day that lawyers had gotten involved. It took three days for ODH to post a list of more than 800 cases and confirm that about 10 percent of all cases statewide involve long-term care workers or patients.
But reporters asking the seemingly simple question of how many Ohio deaths were related to long-term care were met with refusals, with both state and county health officials incredulously claiming the release of such information would violate federal privacy laws.
A few, including Stark County, did eventually share some information, disclosing at least 31% of Stark County COVID-19 cases were in long-term care facilities. Altercare of Alliance has been forthcoming with information and made officials there available to the media before it was disclosed the facility had 55 cases of coronavirus.
Wayne County, to its credit, volunteered that the first five deaths there involved one facility.
The Portage County Health Department did not see the need to inform its citizens even though a surprising 24 deaths had been reported there as of Thursday. We later learned from a Kent Health Department presentation to City Council that “approximately 17” Portage deaths involve long-term care facilities.
An independent count of nursing home deaths statewide shows there have been at least 87 deaths as of Friday, based on research by the Repository and other newspapers. That’s at least one-fifth of all deaths.
These numbers are important to understanding who is getting and dying from COVID-19, facts that probably gave residents — especially in Portage County — some level of reassurance that the general population is faring as well as elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean anyone can stop social distancing as DeWine made clear in his statements Thursday about reopening Ohio in phases beginning May 1. Life will not return to normal for many months or perhaps until next year when a vaccine is expected to become available for widespread use.
Health leaders have built considerable public trust in recent weeks by openly and calmly sharing facts. They’re going to need every bit of that faith to stop people from resuming their normal lives too soon in the weeks to come.
We can’t shut the state down again.