The spread of coronavirus in Ohio appears to be spinning out of control, prompting Gov. Mike DeWine to announce additional measures to enforce mask orders and raise the possibility of again shutting down bars, gyms, and restaurants.
The governor also expressed hope that a vaccine will be coming and said he wants to prioritize groups such as health workers, the elderly and service workers when it does.
“Employees have a right to a safe environment and we intend to protect them,” DeWine said on Thursday.
In the face of the worsening news, DeWine on Wednesday evening addressed the state and said that more needs to be done to keep already exhausted healthcare workers and a highly burdened state health system from being stretched beyond its limits.
There’s been a longstanding statewide order to wear masks in public buildings, but the governor has been reluctant to enforce it. But on Wednesday he said that retail businesses will now be held accountable for mask-wearing by employees and customers — an enforcement role that retailers have been reluctant to fill.
To see that they do, DeWine announced the formation of a Retail Compliance Unit. Under the plan, agents with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation will check retail locations. First violations can result in warnings and second violations can lead to a 24-hour closure, DeWine said.
On Thursday, just after he announced those measures, the numbers in Ohio got much worse.
The day saw yet another record for new cases — 7,101 — which represented a 77% increase over the 21-day average. There also was an alarming increase in the number of new hospitalizations, 268. That’s a 45% increase over the three-week average at a time when officials are already worried about overburdening the system.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the percentage of people testing positive is growing dramatically even though the number of those being tested is going up rapidly.
On Oct. 10, 3.8% of those tested had the coronavirus. On Nov. 10, 13.2% did — more than triple the rate.
“We’re facing a monumental crisis in this state,” DeWine said. “We have to do something to slow this down.”
In the face of so much grim news, DeWine urged people to wear masks and maintain social distance and said that if he doesn’t see a reversal in the numbers, he’ll consider again closing bars, restaurants and gyms. Those are places where mask-wearing often isn’t feasible.
“We’ve got to see movement,” DeWine said. “We’ve got to see some things to show that we can slow this down.”
The state was the object of numerous lawsuits in the spring — the last time such businesses were shut down — with mixed results. DeWine was asked on Thursday if he was concerned about the possibility of more such litigation.
The governor stressed that he hadn’t made any decisions about further shutdowns, but didn’t show much concern about further trips to the courthouse.
“We’ve been sued a lot. I’ve been sued a lot. I’m sure those cases will continue,” he said.
DeWine expressed one hopeful note this week.
Drug maker Pfizer announced that in clinical trials its coronavirus vaccine was 90% effective. That far exceeds expectations and the hope is that trials of other vaccines will show them to be similarly effective and that production of all can ramp up quickly.
Much of that is still unknown. But it is known that the first supplies of the vaccine will be limited, with DeWine saying he’d been told that the first batch of vaccine Ohio would receive amount to about 30,000 doses.
That means officials have to prioritize who gets them.
DeWine said he would prioritize health workers and populations who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. He also said he wants to prioritize low-income Ohioans, many of whom have to work service jobs regardless of whether they have health conditions making them more vulnerable.
“Our goal is to save the most lives we can and to slow down the virus as quickly as we can,” he said. “We’ve looked at, for example, somebody who works in a grocery store. They’re exposed to people all day. They may have asthma. They may be diabetic. But they have to work and we have a lot of people in that category. As we put this together — and it’s not finalized — that’s a group we certainly want to help.”