COVID-19 Spread in Northeast Ohio Will Dictate End of Local Mask Orders
Some Northeast Ohio county health departments may impose their own mask orders, even if Gov. Mike DeWine decides conditions have changed enough to lift the statewide mask mandate.
Meanwhile a local epidemiology professor suggests the state should consider phasing out health orders slowly instead of removing everything at one time, to ensure protections for people who have not received the vaccine.
Currently, the state is seeing 179 cases per 100,000 residents. Last week, DeWine announced health orders will be removed when the state reports 50 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks straight. At that point, health departments will evaluate whether they will pass or keep health orders of their own, said Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner Terry Allan.
“If it looks like we’re moving at the same pace as the state, that would be great,” Allan said. “If it varies a bit from the state on our progress, we may have to take a look at what is the best decision, from a public health standpoint, on how we would advise residents.”
Officials would consider the prevalence of COVID-19 variants, which are more contagious than the original strain, in the community at that time, as well as how many county residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, Allan said.
Cuyahoga County does not currently have its own mask mandate, he added. County council members debated passing one last year, but DeWine imposed a statewide mandate before they could vote on it, Allan said.
In Summit County, however, the health board passed a mask mandate back in August that is still in effect, said Donna Skoda, the county’s health commissioner.
“If we got down to the 50 per 100,000, then the board would reconsider what they wanted to do,” she said. “It’d probably be based on a lot of other factors as well. How much vaccine was out there… [is] there a lot of people in the hospital with severe illness, is there high community spread?”
But different health orders in different counties can be confusing, Skoda said, especially given many Summit County residents work in neighboring Portage and Medina counties.
“I think it gets difficult to try to do that if it’s not consistent with the whole state. It just mixes people up,” she said.
Plus, people may avoid the local rule by traveling to counties that do not have a mask mandate to go grocery shopping or dine out at restaurants, which could hurt Summit County businesses, Skoda added.
Skoda and Allan both agree the state’s new threshold guidance is a practical and data-based approach.
Tara Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, is concerned that not enough people will be vaccinated by the time the state lifts its health orders.
It could take at least a month for the state to reach 50 cases per 100,000 residents, she said.
“You could still have a big gap, as far as people who have not been vaccinated, but are out there heavily exposed to potentially infectious people,” she said.
“It’s really a mistake to get rid of the mask mandate along with everything else, instead of maybe phasing things out over a longer period of time.”
Cuyahoga County’s current rate is 204 cases per 100,000 residents, while Summit County's rate is 194 cases per 100,000 residents, according to Ohio Department of Health data.
Allan agreed it could take a while for the state to reach its threshold, though he is hopeful that vaccination efforts, such as an eight-week mass vaccination clinic at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center starting next week, could help speed up the process.
Skoda is not as optimistic, citing spring break and the circulation of COVID-19 variants as factors that could further delay the state from reaching the point of lifting all health orders.
“There’s going to be folks getting together, there’s going to be extra travel, so I wonder if there won’t be just some environmental factors that keep it from coming down that quickly,” Skoda said.
Both Skoda and Smith also point out children are not yet able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. While children typically do not get as sick as adults, they could drive the spread this fall if health orders are removed, Smith said.
“I think we would see at least a bit of a rebound once distancing and masking … mandates are taken away,” Smith said. “I’m just concerned that we would want to get to a low level and stay at a low level before we take away some of those restrictions.”
Smith also is concerned that if cases do rise again this fall, it would be difficult to enforce new health orders. Better guidance would be to lift health orders when at least 60 percent of residents are vaccinated, or when there are enough vaccines available for everyone who wants one, Smith said.
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