How Ohio has responded to COVID-19: The first cases

Gov. Mike DeWine is seen in a March 9 press conference announcing the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ohio.

It was only a matter of time.

Officials had faced scrutiny for scaling back the Arnold Sports Festival as a preemptive measure to ward off spread of the novel coronavirus. Gov. Mike DeWine and then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton had taken action despite the fact that Ohio had not yet witnessed a confirmed case.

That changed with the confirmation of three cases in Cuyahoga County. Two were a married couple in their mid-50s who had just returned from a cruise on the Nile River. The third, also in his 50s, had just been to a political convention in Washington, D.C. 

These were the first known cases of a virus that has, in the 116 days since, infected more than 48,000 Ohioans, killing at least 2,600 of them. 

The state has reported cases as young as an infant and as old as 109 years of age. It has infected men and women almost equally. By the following month, cases had been reported in all 88 counties. 

This article is the fourth in a series by the Ohio Capital Journal looking back at some of the initial press conferences held in regard to the virus. 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 9, 2020

DeWine announced he had signed a state of emergency in Ohio. He urged reporters present and Ohioans watching at home not to read too much into that and panic. This action, he said, was a “legal necessity” that merely allowed Ohio to respond quicker by purchasing health-related equipment without the normal bidding process. 

The governor said he was in the middle of reading a book about the 1918 pandemic and made note of the different responses ⁠— and, thus, different results ⁠— in St. Louis and Philadelphia. It would be an analogy made often by DeWine and Acton in the months to follow. 

At this early point, there still wasn’t guidance provided on the importance of masks and social distancing. DeWine, Acton and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted stood close together near the podium and reporters still sat in a normal arrangement in front of them.

“Here in Ohio, we will be taking very aggressive actions,” Acton foreshadowed. “We are leaning in, we’ve been leaning in all along.”

She also noted the actions we take today and in the days to come “will make our lives a little more uncomfortable.” An example was no longer visiting nursing homes if feeling ill.

With the stay-at-home order and widespread shutdown still on the horizon, an earlier point of focus was the timing of Ohio’s primary election set for March 16.

DeWine was on record just a few days prior to this press conference saying: “We are (12) days away from the Ohio primary, we do not see any danger in political rallies, we don’t see any danger in regard to voting, we would not anticipate that would be in any way impacted.”

Things had worsened quickly. DeWine noted to reporters that dozens of polling places located in nursing homes would need to be relocated. (The total number of relocated polling places would swell to around 150 within the week leading up to the primary. As we now know, the election was eventually postponed at the last minute. That’s a story for a separate entry in this series.)

DeWine was asked about a pair of campaign rallies planned by Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders for the next day, March 10, in Cleveland. The governor said he did not want to tell another politician what to do, but he suggested it would be a bad idea to host a large public gathering. 

This view has held steady in the months since, in contrast with others within DeWine’s own party who believe there are no health consequences to hosting a political rally in the near future.

DeWine was asked a nearly identical question on June 16 about the Pro Football Hall of Fame still wanting (at that time) to host an NFL pre-season game in August with 20,000 spectators in attendance. DeWine offered a similar answer to the one he gave on March 9 about the Biden/Sanders rallies:

This press conference marked the beginning of a streak of daily public addresses that would stretch for the next 27 days. The governor, lieutenant governor and health director all sought to provide the latest updates about the virus, the state’s response and also offer an encouraging message to Ohioans.

That was how Acton concluded this press conference: