COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff held a press conference Tuesday to call attention to the rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the school year starts for many Ohio children.
DeWine did not announce any new mandates or orders. He said those decisions rest with parents and school officials.
The governor, speaking directly to parents, said his address was prompted by a "moral obligation" to break down the facts so they can make informed decisions. The state is at its highest number of cases since February.
"The best way to make sure a child can stay in school and not have his or her classes interrupted is for that child to be vaccinated," DeWine said. "If that child can not be vaccinated, the best way to ensure a good school year for that child is for that child to wear a mask while in class."
Right now, only children ages 12 and older are eligible for any of the COVID-19 vaccines available. With a surge in cases, students are at risk for not only contracting the virus, but being held out of in-person learning due to outbreaks and risk.
The governor pointed out that as recently as July 7 there were 17 cases per 100,000 people statewide reported over two weeks. That number has since gone up to 236 cases per 100,000 statewide over the past two weeks.
DeWine did not share any data about children, schools and infections, but schools that were in-person last year were themselves not found to be sources of spread. Rather, the numbers tend to mirror the spread in the surrounding community.
Vanderhoff outlined the seriousness of the virus, not just from what has already been reported in relation to breathing issues and long-term health problems, but also the seriousness of the delta variant that has become the dominant strain across Ohio.
"The delta variant is more contagious and can make you sicker quicker. Delta spreads like wildfire, and it clearly seeks out anyone who is unvaccinated," Vanderhoff said. "Now, it is also clearly the dominant strain in Ohio, driving the troubling increases that we are currently seeing and will continue to see, and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations."
Over the course of July 18 to 31, the delta variant made up nearly 90% of the detections in COVID-19 cases determined by complex analysis genomic sampling, Vanderhoff said.
As the state continues to urge vaccinations and mask-wearing among those who cannot be vaccinated, the focus of having K-12 students in schools for in-person learning continues to be the governor's priority.
"You still have the right to have your child wear a mask," DeWine said. "We want our kids in school. We want them to play sports or to be in the band, in the choir, on the debate team. We want them to be learning. We want our kids to be healthy and happy and have a semblance of a normal school year this year. Ultimately, the best way to do that—the best way to prevent them from missing school or their activities due to either quarantining or become ill with COVID—the best way to protect them is to send them to school with a mask and if they're age 12 or older to get them vaccinated just as soon as you can."
DeWine also spoke directly to school district leaders, urging them to consider requiring masks in school this year. Some districts, like the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, are starting the year with a mask mandate.
"Last year, every student wore a mask in the classroom, and it worked. This year, if schools elect not to have students wear a mask, not to require that, things will, sadly, be a lot different," DeWine said. "To all those who are making decisions right now about our schools: If you’re not requiring masks. Please, please, please think about this again. At the very least, consider doing it for the next few weeks, when we know the virus spread level will be very high. You can always go back to no mask once the virus spread is reduced."
Nicole Bush, who has a 7-year-old daughter in a Northeast Ohio school district that is requiring masks while indoors, said she's in favor of masks for all Ohio students, but wouldn't get her daughter vaccinated if she was old enough to qualify to get vaccine.
“The mask I understand, but the vaccination—you have to realize everybody has their own health issues," Bush said. “With the kids having masks that’s fine, but you’re not going to be able to get the little kids to keep the mask on all days. They’re little, they run around, they don’t wear face masks everyday.
“We can do the mask, I don’t have problem with it, but I’m not getting my kid vaccinated to go to school, if so we will go back to remote learning. My daughter’s school let us know that they have to wear masks, and if they don’t wear a mask over a certain period of time, we’re going to send them back to remote learning,” Bush said.
Meanwhile, DeWine, who stressed the severity of the situation Ohioans of all ages, especially children, are facing, said Ohio won't go back to the mandates we saw the first time around with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think there's a real desire by the people in the state of Ohio to make their own decisions," DeWine said. "I felt that today, with this new information that we have, it was important for me to talk directly to the people in the state of Ohio and to tell them exactly where we are. But I think at this point, the clear preference of the people of the state, certainly the vast majority of people, is with what we're seeing now is for them to make their own decisions and today we're trying to give them the most information that we can so they can make those decisions."
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