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Health & Science

Ohio's Big Gamble: Can We Follow the Rules and Avoid a Spike?

a photo of Larry Householder speaking to reporters
KAREN KASLER
/
OHIO PUBLIC RADIO
Ohio House speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford), and virtually all GOP House members refused to wear facial coverings at the legislative session.

When Gov. Mike DeWine announced this week’s reopening of retail businesses he called it ‘a gamble.’

DeWine and state health officials are betting that people will follow the  state’s safety guidelines while shopping, and still stay-at-home as much as possible.

Kent State epidemiologist Tara Smith says whether the gamble pays off is up to us.

Kent State University's Tara Smith has been closely watching trends as governments around the world gradually lift lockdown orders.

Does she expect a spike in coronavirus cases as Ohio businesses begin reopening?

"I'm not sure that we'll see a dramatic spike, because I don't think everyone is going to be going out," said Smith.

"I certainly am not," she said, "and I don't think I'm the only one that feels that way."

"We've been primarily on a plateau for a while now, partly due to our testing capacity being maxed out, but I don't expect there to be a really rapid increase," although she does expect a gradual rise in cases through the end of May and into June.

Smith says this plateau in cases could prompt the Ohio Department of Health or county departments to modify the health orders that guide the reopening of businesses and public spaces in the coming weeks.

Does Ohio have adequate testing in place to track the effects of lifting the lockdown?

In a word, "no," said Smith.

Widespread testing was one of the things we were hoping to have in place as dates were set to reopen retailers, hair salons, restaurants and bars, "and we don't have that at all," she said.

"Robust testing capacity, the ability to trace contacts, and isolate positive cases... that is really what public health officials  wanted to have in place in order to reopen."

"We are one of the lowest in the nation in per capita testing," said Smith. "Ohio ranks around sixth from the bottom."

Gov. Mike DeWine called the reopening of Ohio businesses, "a gamble."  How would you characterize what's at stake in terms of public safety? 

"We all want Ohio to reopen," said Smith. "We're all tired of being at home.

photo of tara smith
Credit TARA SMITH
Tara Smith, PhD, teaches epidemiology at Kent State University.

But we need to do it slowly and not have everyone suddenly jump into their favorite restaurants," she said.

"We need to still do the things that slow the spread of the virus, like good hand hygiene and potentially wearing masks, but it has really become politically polarized."

"When the legislature was back in session, no Republicans wore a mask to those sessions," said Smith.

"It's really become a kind of protest, 'the government can't tell me what to do,'" she said.

"That is really disheartening and discouraging because public health shouldn't be politicized."

"I don't think our leaders should be putting out that kind of example, to disregard the recommendations of Dr. Acton and Governor DeWine, to not wear a mask and potentially put their communities in danger."

It seems that you don't see the reopening itself as leading to a spike in cases, if we do it right.

"And that's a big IF," said Smith, "if we do it right. I am counting on people to still be sensible about this," she said.

"I am hoping that those who can still stay home will continue to do so.  And those who are most vulnerable, I hope they will try to stay home as much as possible."

"I think I'm optimistic," said Smith, "but I guess we'll see what the numbers start to show."

Tara Smith, PhD is a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University where she studies emerging infectious diseases.

She is also a columnist at Self magazine and has been a science blogger for more than a decade.