The first big decision had been made. The popular Arnold Sports Festival, which brought tens of millions of dollars in economic activity to central Ohio, would be held in limited capacity to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The date was March 5. There had not yet been a positive test of the virus in Ohio, but officials knew it was only a matter of time. Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and others addressed the initial virus concerns at their first public press conference just two days prior.
DeWine would not address the public again for another two days. Until then, he and Acton wanted state government workers — in all departments and agencies — to be prepared.
So, DeWine convened a “Governor’s Summit on COVID-19 Preparedness.” He briefed the many members of his cabinet about the response to that point and what to expect in the weeks ahead.
Watching each cabinet member introduce themselves months later, it is easy to think of how the virus went on to affect them and the Ohioans their agency serves. This was no longer a concern for just the Ohio Department of Health (ODH). The Ohio Department of Natural Resources would, soon enough, close down public restrooms and even the entire Hocking Hills State Park — the explanation was that tight hiking paths made social distancing impossible. The Department of Higher Education would, soon enough, witness campus closures and bruising budget cuts associated with the virus.
This article is the second in a series by the Ohio Capital Journal looking back at some of the initial press conferences held in regard to the virus. You can read Part 1 here. The purpose of this series is to provide a fair, measured reflection on some of the early decisions, statements and predictions made by state officials.
March 5, 2020
As Gov. DeWine led off the summit with some opening remarks, it is interesting to note how he and others still viewed the virus in these early weeks.
“This is a unique situation,” he said about the Arnold Sports Festival decision. “We do not believe that it is necessary to issue this for any other activity going on. We have advised people to continue going about their daily lives.”
DeWine explained his view that the prohibition on festival spectators and cancellation of the trade expo could only be carried out through a public health order.
This would prove to be the first health order of many others to come.
The governor continued that guidance was being given to nursing/veterans homes and their staffs. Residents who showed symptoms were being separated and visitors were to be screened before entering.
“Being prepared is different than being panicked,” DeWine said:
DeWine offered his perspective about how he wanted to approach public health when he became governor:
Acton followed at the microphone and emphasized the need for strong, cohesive communications work with the public as the virus situation developed.
“When you hit it out of the park, when you do everything right, you won’t see us,” Acton said of public health workers. “But then in time of need, and in time of need like this, you will. It’s absolutely important that we continue to invest in a modern, strong public health system, and I’m so grateful to work for a governor who puts that at the top of his agenda.”
One element of the governor’s summit was preparing for the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ohio.
Benjamin Robison of the ODH’s Office of Health Preparedness shared early models detailing the potential spread of COVID-19 with and without government intervention.
He said the goal of mitigation steps would be to delay the “wave” and reduce the impact (“flatten the curve”) over the coming weeks and months. He outlined a plan of how positive cases would be reported to ODH and stressed the need for good communication between local and state officials.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams also spoke during the summit via webcam and answered questions from health officials. He noted his connections to Ohio:
Adams offered simple health tips: wiping down surfaces with household cleaners; washing your hands by singing “Happy Birthday” twice; covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough; and staying home if you’re sick.
In early March, a common talking point about the coronavirus involved putting the virus in perspective with the impact of the flu. Adams noted that in his discussion:
To date, the Centers for Disease Control reports more than 105,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 in 2020, far surpassing any year of flu deaths.
Adams also gave advice to Ohio business owners, saying they should be lenient about letting workers stay home to prevent the spread of the virus:
Government shutdowns and virus fears would go on to shutter many Ohio businesses in the weeks that followed. Most have since reopened, and the Capital Journal reported in late May the stories of several workers who shared fears about returning to work.
On March 5, though, the closures and reopenings were still far off. DeWine wanted the Ohio government to be prepared.
Four days later, the first case here was confirmed.