COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday set a specific target of reduced coronavirus cases as the benchmark for ending public health orders in Ohio, including mask wearing.
Those orders will be lifted once the state hits the mark of 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people for two weeks, DeWine said. He called the goal “very doable,” noting that that figure has already dropped from 731 cases on Dec. 3 to 445 cases on Feb. 3, and to 179 cases on Thursday.
But meeting that goal requires continued mask wearing for now and for as many people to receive the coronavirus vaccine as possible, DeWine said. The state now has supplies of three vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
DeWine, many of whose grandchildren are runners, compared the requirement for continued vigilance to toughing out the last portion of a marathon.
“No marathoner pulls out on purpose at the 25th mile marker,” the governor said.
“They know that they’re almost to the finish line,” he said. “And that is when the marathoner digs even deeper from within to martial the will to go on, to go on to that finish line.”
DeWine called masks a “battle-tested” tool proven to work.
The goal set by DeWine still amounts to a “moderate to high incidence,” said Tara Smith, a Kent State epidemiologist. Removing health restrictions if that goal is reached quickly could still mean many essential workers remain unvaccinated and at risk, especially as virus variants circle in the state, she said. Better to continue the mask mandate regardless, Smith said.
“We could be nearing an endgame here as far as the worst of the pandemic, but we need to hold steady,” she said Thursday. “If we move backwards and give the virus more hosts in which to spread and evolve, we could be seeing the spread of these nastier variants, and possibly the emergence of new ones.”
DeWine’s announcement came a week after he announced expanded attendance figures for sports and entertainment venues and lifted bans on large gatherings — such as wedding receptions — as long as social distancing and mask wearing continues.
It also came two days after Texas announced it was ending its mask mandate. Rep. Emilia Sykes of Akron, the top House Democrat, credited DeWine for keeping the mask mandate even as she criticized him for not properly planning for the vaccine rollout.
Sykes commended DeWine “for standing up to Statehouse Republicans and others in his party by committing to the mask mandate, an easy, proven, low-cost intervention to stop the spread.”
As they did last year, fellow Ohio Republican lawmakers continue to push new bills to restrict a governor’s ability to enact public health orders during a pandemic.
In his 15-minute speech, DeWine reviewed the beginning of the pandemic, which for many started this week. It was one year ago that DeWine laid down strict attendance limits on the annual Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, a giant sports festival that typically attracts 20,000 athletes from 80 countries as well as thousands of spectators.
Nine days later, DeWine ordered schools closed for three weeks, an order that ultimately ended in-person learning for many districts for nearly a year.
DeWine applauded Ohioans for showing what he called “our Ohio grit” over the last year even in the face of job losses and the deaths of loved ones from the coronavirus.
He also acknowledged that “all of us are so sick of this virus” while encouraging a fight to the finish.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Ohio did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 2,353 new cases per day on Feb. 17 to 1,801 new cases per day on March 3, according to an Associated Press analysis of data provided by The COVID Tracking Project.
More than 1.8 million people in Ohio have received at least one shot of the vaccine, or about 15% of the population as of Thursday, according to the state Health Department. More than 980,000 have completed their vaccinations, or about 8% of the population.