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COVID-19 rises again in an undervaccinated Ohio

Posted at 6:12 AM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 19:13:01-05

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement. News 5 reporter Jade Jarvis provided additional local coverage to this version of the article.

COVID-19 cases are once again ascendant in the 10th least vaccinated state in the nation.

State data shows infection rates are climbing and the workloads are reupping at hospitals, where more than 2,700 Ohioans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

An analysis of state data shows that 11 months into the vaccine rollout, the ground is still fertile for outbreaks all around Ohio. Of 88 counties in the Buckeye State, only Delaware (71% vaccinated) surpasses the national vaccination rate of 68.5%. In 58 counties, less than half the population is vaccinated, according to data as of Sunday.

Ranked by state, Ohio (56% vaccinated) is the 10th least-vaccinated in the country, according to data from The New York Times.

In Henry County, a rural swath of northwest Ohio, COVID-19 is spreading at more than twice the statewide rate of about 400 infections per 100,0000 residents. About 52% of residents are vaccinated. Health Commissioner Joy Ermie said the spread is not specific to any outbreak or location, it’s just swimming through homes and social events of mostly unvaccinated people.

“The quicker we turn this around, the quicker we’ll see a decrease in our cases,” she said. “It will be a forever cycle if we cannot increase our overall vaccination rates.”

Public health workers in coronavirus-sieged counties said in interviews for this article that it’s time to start accepting that COVID-19 is likely here to stay in some form or fashion, absent a paradigm shift on vaccination.

Several indicated a circular pattern in vaccination; the unvaccinated, by and large, are staying unvaccinated. The vaccinated are fortifying their immune system with booster doses.

“I would absolutely love to say COVID is over in X [number of] months,” Ermie said. “But I feel much more confident that we should take our energy away from, ‘How is this going to end?’ to ‘How can we learn to live with it?’”

Federal authorities approved the use of vaccines on children aged 5-11 earlier this month, which will likely jumpstart vaccination rates to some extent. In north-central Ohio’s Seneca County, a population of roughly 55,000 people, about 47% of residents are vaccinated. The county’s case rate is nearly twice the statewide average.

About 20 children were vaccinated at a clinic last Tuesday night, according to county health commissioner Anne Goon. She said there hasn’t been any mad rush on vaccines, but she was happy with Tuesday’s crowd.

She said adults in the community have bristled with vaccines, masks, and assorted infection control policy responses to the pandemic. Some parents have refused to have their kids tested after they’re exposed to the coronavirus at school, she said, even if it’s required for an after-school sport.

“We have a portion of our population that just doesn’t think COVID is real,” Goon said. “That it’s just a hoax.”

Despite kids between the ages of 5 and 11 now being eligible for vaccinations, Dr. Keith Armitage, the medical director at University Hospitals’ Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine and Global Health, doesn’t think it will help Ohio’s vaccination increase because many parents are still hesitant.

“It seems as though nationally about a third of parents are very anxious to get their kids vaccinated, about a third are taking a wait and see attitude, and about a third are saying, ‘No way, not ever.’ And unless we get 70-80% or more kids vaccinated in terms of the spread, I don't think it's going to have a big impact,” Armitage said.

To Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio’s top doctor and director of the state health department, the state is “approaching” a point in the pandemic where coronavirus becomes more of a nuisance than threat to the public welfare. We’re not there yet though as the extra-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus “relentlessly” seeks out the unvaccinated, he said.

“In some circumstances, what is driving what we’re seeing is low vaccination rates in some communities,” he said. “So we have to continue to focus on the importance of vaccination.”

Vanderhoff, speaking to reporters Friday, offered a more optimistic take on Ohio’s vaccination rate. Among Ohio adults, more than 2 in 3 have now received at least one dose of vaccination. The COVID-19 vaccination rate, he said, has surpassed the rate of Ohioans who get their annual flu shot. It pales in comparison to vaccination against disease like measles or polio, but those vaccines have been around longer and are (mostly) legally required to enroll in school.

Despite Vanderhoff’s optimism, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased across every age group over the last week. For people aged 30-39, who are less vaccinated than their elder counterparts, hospitalizations leapt 48% in that time frame. More than 2,700 Ohioans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up from less than 2,200 earlier this month.

John Palmer, a spokesman for the Ohio Hospital Association, said the statewide COVID-19 patient census has been increasing by about 60 patients daily as of late.

“Hospitals are operating at high-capacity levels with workforce challenges and any surge will have a devastating impact leading to disruption of health care access for communities,” he said. “Despite three safe, approved and effective vaccines available today to stop this virus we continue to see spread and it’s frustrating to respond to a virus that is preventable.”

All told over about 20 pandemic months, more than 25,600 Ohioans have died from COVID-19, part of the U.S.’ 762,000 dead. More than 82,000 Ohioans have been hospitalized, including more than 10,000 who required ICU care. A staggering 1.6 million Ohioans have been infected with COVID-19.

Data on infections that “break through” the vaccines’ protection is limited, but available evidence suggests it’s a rare occurrence. CDC research shows vaccination decreases the risk of infection by a factor of five; the vaccines are between 88% and 93% effective in preventing hospitalization; and months’ worth of data shows there’s no increased risk for mortality among vaccine recipients. Since Jan. 1 in Ohio, fewer than 5% of people hospitalized or dead from COVID-19 were vaccinated.

Mark Cameron, an immunologist at Case Western Reserve University, is not surprised by COVID-19’s resurgence. Even highly vaccinated states like Vermont (82% vaccine started) are wrestling with outbreaks. In Ohio, cold weather makes respiratory viruses more spreadable and drives humans to gather inside instead of outside.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable to operate in a space in which 50-60% of the people are unvaccinated,” he said.

He expressed frustration with a sense of complacency from the public whenever the coronavirus ebbs, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the predictable patterns of disease spread based on low vaccine coverage, weather and human behavior.

“I don’t know what unique to say at this point,” he said. “Here we are risking another impact on our holiday season through sickness, hospitalization and death.”