COVID-19 in Appalachia: Testing slow, but coming to Southeast Ohio

A photo of the O'Bleness hospital emergency room sign in Athens, Ohio. Photo by David C. DeWitt.

Note: This is the second story in a series detailing the effects of COVID-19 on Appalachian Ohio and how local residents, businesses and health professionals are responding to best serve their region. Check back this week for the rest of the series.

Coronavirus has made its way to almost all of Ohio’s 88 counties, but the number of confirmed cases, and the testing it takes to confirm cases, is taking the longest to reach the Appalachian region of Ohio, namely the Southeastern portion of the state.

On March 25, a majority of Ohio counties had at least one confirmed case of COVID-19: 55 out of 88, or 62.5%. And yet, only 13 out of the 32 counties recognized as Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission’s federal-state partnership had a confirmed case, or about 40%. Many of these were located together in the Northeast corner of the state.

An illustration of the counties with at least one confirmed case of coronavirus as of March 25.

By April 6, nearly every county (81 out of 88) had a confirmed case. But six of the seven counties without one as of that date are located in Southeast Ohio: Hocking, Vinton, Jackson, Meigs, Noble and Harrison. 

Dr. James Gaskell, Health Commissioner of the Athens County Health Department, said testing was difficult to obtain, but with OhioHeath and LabCorp now conducting tests, “it’s easily available.”

“OhioHealth has opened a testing site away from the hospital, and anyone presenting symptoms can call their doctor, who will order it,” Gaskell said, adding that the testing sites have not hit capacity of 150 tests. 

An illustration of the confirmed cases as of April 6.

Gaskell said the surge will hit Athens the same as any other county, but the county is more prepared with more testing and a hospital with an increased bed capacity, from 50 to 120. 

“I think we’ll see jumps in the number of confirmed cases in the next few weeks,” Gaskell said.

Meigs County has yet to report any cases, though Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith told the Capital Journal that the Holzer Clinic in the county has the ability to conduct the tests, and has deployed a medical tent to limit access to the emergency room in cases of potential coronavirus. 

The Meigs County Health Department released a statement last week to address concerns from county citizens about the lack of reporting of any cases, negative or positive. Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton has said the state will only release the number of confirmed cases at the state level.

In Meigs, the health department said they “truly don’t know how many tests have been run, not the accurate number of negative cases, because according to guidance from the Ohio Department of Health, the Health Department does not have to be notified of every test completed,” according to the statement.

“With our geographical location, people travel to multiple locations for medical treatment, not only in Ohio, but also across the river in West Virginia, which makes the tracking of testing even harder,” the department statement read. 

Despite the lack of tests currently, health department officials believe coronavirus “is in the county, but individuals are not seeking testing, but are rather staying at home and waiting it out, just as they would for a cold or a flu.”

Tyler Buchanan contributed to this report.