Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton and clerk Mary Remsing. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton and clerk Mary Remsing. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
During their July 1 meeting, Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy met with Highland County health commissioner Jared Warner, who provided an update on COVID-19 cases in the county as well as discussing a planned health levy for the November 2020 ballot.

Warner told commissioners that the health department is seeking a .5-mill, five-year levy renewal this November. The health commissioner told The Highland County Press that this levy “is set to expire at the end of this year.”

The proposed renewal levy is separate from the additional levy approved by voters during the 2020 primary. As previously reported, a .5-mill, five-year additional operating levy for the department passed during Ohio’s vote-by-mail primary, after appearing on the ballot for the third time in three years.

“I’m not sure how we got in this position where we have two different health levies running at the same time, each of which are half a mill, but that’s sort of the situation we inherited when I started in November of 2014,” Warner told commissioners. “One of those levies was originally passed in 1989, and we have been able to bring that levy up to modern-day funding.

“The other levy was passed in the year 2000, and it continues to fund us at the same rate that it was in the year 2000. Levy funding overall provides 50 percent of the health department’s funds to operate, and we’re looking to keep that levy from the year 2000 on as a renewal.”

Highland County auditor Bill Fawley said that the estimated property tax revenue is $241,720 per year, “assuming the tax valuation of the subdivision remains constant throughout the life of the levy.” The full rate of the levy is half a mill, but the effective rate is .294422 for agricultural and residential and .411150 for commercial/industrial, according to Fawley.

“So it’s about half its actual value,” Warner said.

“So everybody understands, the renewal keeps it at that effective rate,” Fawley said. “A replacement takes it back to the full [.5], but they’re wanting a renewal, so it’s going to stay where it is.”

Fawley said the levy approved in April was an additional levy, replacing one from 1989 that “had run out last year.” He explained that although those taxes won’t be assessed until 2021, it will bring in more revenues because it will be a “true .5 mill” assessment, instead of the effective rate.

“We’ve talked about, internally, for quite a while, how nice it would be to have one levy because I know it’s confusing for the public to keep track of additional, replacement and renewal [levies],” Warner said. “Our concern is that with the difficulty we had in passing a half-mill levy, it would be that much more difficult to explain to the community or to do with away with all of our other levies and put on a one mill or make some significant shift like that.

“Maybe that’ll be able to happen down the road sometime, but right now we’d like to just keep with the additional 2000 funding.”

Fawley told The Highland County Press that the levies “used to be a year apart,” but the replacement levy’s failure in the November 2018 general election and May 2019 primary led to them appearing on the ballot on the same year. Should voters approve the renewal as well, “we will be collecting both next year,” he said.

As previously reported, Warner told commissioners in 2018 that the Health Department had operated at a loss since 2013, and in November 2019, Warner said the health department is “not bringing in enough money to cover our expenses." The health commissioner told The Highland County Press Wednesday that the department “operated at a profit” in 2019 due to “leaving a position empty” for several months.

“We need a well-funded health department to maintain a healthy community, especially during a global pandemic,” Warner said. “This levy doesn't raise taxes, just keeps things the same. It gives us the funding we need to offer the 60-plus services we provide the community.”

Fawley also explained the reason why the levy was brought before commissioners for their approval, saying that a clerical error in another county led to an entity not receiving the amount of funds from a levy originally planned. As a result, he said, the “state legislature added another step” in authorizing a levy issue, but it doesn’t necessarily constitute an endorsement on the county’s part.

“The Board of Health themselves voted to run this, but they don’t have the authority, as a taxing authority, to do that,” Fawley said. “You guys [commissioners] then have to pass a resolution saying ‘we’re OK with putting it on the ballot.’ It doesn’t say ‘we’re all three going to vote for it.’ It doesn’t say you think it’s a great idea. It’s just you’re saying to the board [of health], we agree to put it on the ballot.”

The commissioners’ resolution then has to go back to the Board of Health for an additional vote to accept a worksheet with totals calculated by the Highland County auditor’s office, Fawley said.

“Our action today not only gives them permission to put it on the ballot, but it also says here’s what we and you, the auditor’s office, formally advise you that it’s going to generate,” Abernathy added.

Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve the resolution authorizing the proposed tax levy renewal for the Board of Health.

For the latest COVID-19 update, Warner said Highland County has had a total of “38 lab-confirmed cases and nine probable cases, for a grand total of 47 COVID-19 cases in the county.” That includes 34 recoveries; 12 actively sick patients; one death; and one current hospitalization, with another patient likely to be hospitalized.

In addition to adding seven more cases since last Wednesday, the county is also seeing an increase of individuals exposed to the virus.

“We haven’t seen the numbers and increases that Hamilton County and Warren County have seen, but we have essentially doubled our numbers on the quarantine side of things from two weeks ago,” Warner said. “Two weeks ago, we had 13 people in quarantine, talking to them twice a day, watching them, monitoring them for symptoms. This morning, we have 32 people that are actively under monitoring because they’ve had some sort of exposure.

“I think we’re getting closer to the point where all of us are going to know somebody who’s been impacted in some way. I think that kind of helps, from a messaging standpoint, make it a little more real because we haven’t really had the significant impact locally so far.”

Warner also gave an update on two testing initiatives frequently discussed during his Facebook live updates. The first is a statewide randomized testing study, which is now officially underway.

“I believe the postcards are already in the mail,” Warner said. “They’re randomly selecting 12,000 households in the state of Ohio. Out of that, 1,200 will be selected for PCR tests, which is the nasal swab to see if they’re actively infected, and also antibody tests, to see if they’ve been exposed, potentially been sick and recovered.

“To get an idea of where overall prevalence levels are in Ohio, it really helps us from a planning perspective to see where we are in the process of this pandemic. We’ll be watching those and waiting to see if Highland County has any addresses that have been selected. If we’re on that list, we’ll be working to tell people what a postcard looks like and give them the idea that this is not a scam.”

The other testing initiative is one announced last month by Governor Mike DeWine’s office for widespread testing within nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Warner said that Highland County’s testing date has been set for July 14, with members of the Ohio National Guard conducting the tests.

“We just received this information a few days ago,” Warner said. “It doesn’t require anything from us. The National Guard staff will come in and perform testing, definitely on the staff in these facilities, and they offer nursing homes the option to test residents as well. Each nursing home decides how they want to approach that.”

In other testing discussion, Warner said that regional leaders are considering “developing some rapid response testing teams” for the southwest Ohio area.

“We’ve got some partnerships locally, which we’ve been able to do that with some small clusters that we’ve dealt with,” Warner said. “They’re looking to develop more of a pool of testers, partnering with our federally qualified health care centers, so if we do have a large cluster either in a business or a nursing home or a school or anything like that, we have some resources to pull from the region to quickly come in and do testing.”

Abernathy asked about testing availability in Highland County. “If someone says ‘I’d like to get tested, for either the coronavirus or to see if I’ve got the antibodies,’ can anyone do that at this time?” he asked.

Warner said “we’re in a better place now with testing than we’ve ever been,” and nearly anyone interested qualifies for testing unless they are asymptomatic, which he said is discouraged due to the comparatively low prevalence rates in Highland County.

“We’re still encouraging our health care providers — and we talk to them on a weekly basis — to focus on people who have symptoms. Test those people, and anybody that you want to get tested, test,” Warner said. “Anybody that’s actively sick, absolutely get tested. Right now, we’re discouraging people from doing any asymptomatic testing, just because I don’t think there’s much return for that investment.”

Abernathy asked if that advice was because the health department was concerned about running out of tests.

“We came across this with a local cluster we’d been working on,” Warner said. “If it had taken a turn for the worse — which we were a little concerned about and had done some advance planning for — what happens if I have to go in and do 400 tests? Do I really have the ability to get that many test kits? That tends to be one of the real shortages, the actual testing material.

“If we have a big, sudden, unexpected surge, I think we could run into some barriers and not be able to test as much as we want. On a day-to-day basis, I haven’t heard anybody have issues getting access to testing on a more regular schedule, going to your doctor and getting tested.”

Abernathy asked Warner about antibody testing options in Highland County. Warner said that “one place in the county” — Roman Family Healthcare in Greenfield — has offered these tests, but the county is working to make antibody testing more readily available.

“We’ve got some projects in the works with Highland Health Providers, trying to get their kits so we can do more of a prevalence study in Highland County,” Warner said. “The issue we’re running into is the quality control component of the testing kits is still not available. We’re working with the manufacturer, and it’s just a wait-and-see.”

“So they’re still not entirely trustworthy,” Abernathy said.

The health commissioner responded that it “depends on the test.” “The FDA has some really good information available on their website,” Warner said. “The test kit that Highland Health Providers is looking at is a very high specificity rate and a very high sensitivity rate. One of the issues you run into with areas like ours with a low overall prevalence is that even with positive tests, there’s a higher likelihood of a false positive just because there’s lower levels of the disease in the community.

“If we’re able to do antibody testing, we’ll have to put a lot of those disclaimers at the top that it’s new technology, not fully trusted, and sometimes false positive rates can be an issue. But I would like to get some idea of where we are as a county, what our prevalence levels are, so we can plan and develop policies that make sense.”

Warner also updated commissioners on two of the biggest areas of public interest in the coming months: preparing for the 2020-21 school year and for the Highland County Fair.

Governor DeWine said Monday that his office hoped to share the state’s guidance for reopening schools during their Thursday, July 2 press conference. On the local level, Warner said that the health department has been working with schools to come up with a restart plan, which they will be reviewing and discussing before seeking public comment.

“School guidance is under review at the health department,” Warner said. “We’ll be sending that out to all of our schools to look at later today and have a conference call scheduled with them next Tuesday to talk through what a common-sense framework looks like to get kids back to school and do it safely.”

Warner said the health department will invite the public to weigh in once the department and local superintendents finalize their ideas. “There’s no way to make everybody happy, but we’re trying to find a framework that all the schools can agree with in principle so that we’re at least approaching this consistently across Highland County,” he said.

As previously reported, the Highland County Agricultural Society voted last week to move forward with a full fair in 2020. Warner said the health department “supported that decision” and is working with the fair board to safely host this year’s event.

“They’ve already been really great partners in trying to figure out different ways to mitigate their risk and figure out some common-sense things to increase hand-washing access, looking at how they’re going to set up their fair vendors and just working through how we can have a full fair, do it safely and support that project,” Warner said.

For more on Wednesday’s commissioners meeting, see the article at: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/Default/Rotator-Articles-/Article/Commissioners-proclaim-March-19-as-Edward-Lee-McClain-Day-hear-updates-on-energy-project-CARES-Act/-3/546/58330.