University Hospitals Kent Health Center in October. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

‘Unrelenting’ Covid-19 surge launches Portage County into purple

University Hospitals Kent Health Center in October. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

‘Unrelenting’ Covid-19 surge launches Portage County into purple

Local health officials anticipate having a vaccine for the general population by February

Portage County entered Covid-19 risk level four, the highest possible, after triggering six of the state health department’s seven risk level indicators, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday. The only threshold our county did not cross was for hospital admissions, which did not increase for five consecutive days within the past three weeks.

“The most alarming thing between the red and the purple coloration is our hospital usage,” Portage County Health Commissioner Joseph Diorio said during a press briefing Thursday afternoon. “Not only are we seeing community spread, but now we’re seeing community spread that is affecting our vulnerable populations and individuals that need medical care because of contracting Covid-19. And placing them in the hospital system along with other patients that need medical attention. That’s what’s creating a drain and a draw on the hospital care in our region and throughout the state.”

The county’s average per-day cases nearly tripled from 34 at the beginning of November to 95 as of Tuesday. Of those tested for Covid-19 in the county, 13.9 percent currently receive positive results, an increase from the 10.5 percent positivity rate reported in mid-November, Diorio said.

The concerning spread of the illness has arrived in Portage County just as local health officials are anticipating the arrival of vaccines. DeWine announced last week that Ohio aims to administer a Covid-19 vaccine by Dec. 15.

Portage County has been planning how to distribute the vaccine locally, but because of limited availability and the necessary prioritization of healthcare workers and other vulnerable populations, he didn’t expect it to be available to the general population until February or March.

“That is really the light at the end of the tunnel for us in public health,” Diorio said. “To be able to get that vaccine out for the population.”

Diorio also said the Portage County Combined General Health District has received an increase in reports from residents concerned about people refusing to follow safety guidelines.

“We have seen an increase in complaints all across the board,” he said. “Not just mask complaints, but complaints regarding community activities where there’s too many people and not enough physical distancing. … We are getting complaints on everything.”

Both Diorio and Kent City Health Commissioner Joan Seidel implored residents to stay home as much as possible. If you have not already changed holiday plans, Diorio said now is the time to reconsider traveling or having guests over.

“We certainly feel challenged and weary with the continual need to practice safely,” Seidel said. “But as we see, the virus is unrelenting, and it can be unforgiving as well.”

While off-campus gatherings of Kent State students drove Portage County’s numbers up in months prior, Seidel said cases among K-12 students are rising because of out-of-school activities like sports.

With cases rising rapidly, she said public health agencies face challenges tracing the virus’ spread. Kent City Health Department has received so many calls about positive cases that it has had to prioritize those related to young people and more vulnerable populations, along with calls associated with cluster outbreaks, she said.

If you have to go out, Seidel emphasized the spread-reducing effect of masking up. She cited data from a Centers for Disease Control study in Kansas that demonstrated a decline in new cases per capita in counties that adopted mask mandates, while counties without mandates saw sustained increases.

“That’s important information that we’ve learned during the course of the pandemic that these simple strategies are quite effective,” she said.

University Hospitals Portage County Medical Center President Bill Benoit did not attend the press briefing, but the hospital sent a statement.

“While they’ve seen a significant rise in patients who need hospitalization, UH Portage continues to provide expert care to all those who choose UH Portage for their care,” Diorio said, reading the statement. “UH Portage feels they are blessed with the support of the county and city of Kent health department, the county EMA, Akron Regional Hospital Association, UH hospital health system and many others. This teamwork helps UH Portage to ensure that they have the supplies, staff, physicians and support that they need.”

Diorio said the surge remains manageable at this point, but like hospitals across the country, UH Portage is doing its best to mitigate staff shortages.

“We’re seeing increases across the board, not just for ICU and for ventilator usage, but in bed occupancy, period,” he said. “But right now, they’ve been able to maintain and hold everything within their four walls. I know that the hospital system, as in all of our hospital systems, are seeing shortages with staff. And I know UH portage is doing the best they can to sustain staff and to make sure that everyone has the treatments that they need.”

The six risk indicators that triggered Portage County’s level-four alert are:

  • More than 50 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks
  • At least five consecutive days when the number of cases (by onset date) increased within the past three weeks
  • At least five consecutive days when the number of Covid-19 emergency department visits increased within the past three weeks
  • At least five consecutive days when the number of Covid-19 outpatient healthcare visits increased within the past three weeks
  • The proportion of cases among people who are not residents of long-term care facilities, group homes, jails or prisons has been more than 50 percent in at least one of the past three weeks
  • The percentage of occupied ICU beds in the region was above 80 percent for at least three days during the past week, and more than 20 percent of ICU beds were being used for Covid-19 patients for at least three days during the past week

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Michael Indriolo is a visual journalist based in Kent. He is a contributor at The Portager covering a range of topics, including local government and community.