Highland County Emergency Operations Center and Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District Public Information Officer Branden Jackman, left, and Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner are pictured during their Facebook live conference.
Highland County Emergency Operations Center and Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District Public Information Officer Branden Jackman, left, and Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner are pictured during their Facebook live conference.
The weekly Highland County question-and-answer session regarding COVID-19 included updates on reopening schools and public events, testing, face coverings, local cases and more.

Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner and Highland County Emergency Operations Center and Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District Public Information Officer Branden Jackman hosted the weekly Facebook live update Wednesday afternoon, a day earlier than usual. The conference is normally held on Thursdays, although due to scheduling conflicts, the June 18 meeting was canceled.

Because of another scheduling conflict, the Facebook live was moved up a day, but both officials said that they plan to limit the number of Facebook conferences in the future.

“We’re not going to be doing ongoing Facebook lives after this one,” Warner said. “We’re going to do this more on an as-needed basis. Be watching Facebook. We’re not going to necessarily be here every week. We’re getting a little repetitive with some of the things that we’re saying, and we see a lot of familiar faces here every week.

“We’re going to hold things off, and if we have a significant development here locally, we’ll put some announcements out and put this back up.”

However, Warner said that the health department can be contacted through social media or by calling (937) 393-1941 with any questions, and Jackman said that Paint Creek can also be contacted through their social media page if needed. Updates on case numbers and state guidelines are also frequently posted on the health department’s page.

Jackman pointed out that the viewership for the weekly conference has decreased.

“When we started these three months ago, we were averaging 130, 140 people,” Jackman said. “We’re now averaging a third of that.”

Warner began the session by sharing the latest COVID-19 numbers for the county, which include “33 lab-confirmed cases and seven cases that are in the probable category for, a grand total of 40 cumulative COVID-19 cases,” he said. Of those cases, 35 have recovered; one individual has died; four people are actively sick; and as of Wednesday, one person is hospitalized. There are 12 people under quarantine and being monitored for symptoms.

Warner added that the four actively sick patients mark “the lowest” number in the county “for quite some time.”

“About two weeks ago, we had a little bit of an increase, but right now we’ve only got four people who are actively sick, so that’s really encouraging,” Warner said. “We had 32 people at one point that needed to be monitored, and right now we’re at 12. All the numbers are really looking pretty good, and we’re excited to be headed in the right direction.

“We’re a little bit concerned with some of the increases we’re seeing in other parts of southwest Ohio, but Highland County right now is doing all right.”

Jackman said that the county is “trending downward” in cases. Warner clarified when you are “dealing with small numbers like we have been since the beginning of this, we can’t read too much into those trends, because if you add a few cases here or take a few cases away there, it doesn’t always indicate a larger trend.”

“Right now, we’re optimistic that we’re keeping a good handle on things here and trying to keep it that way,” Warner said.

Warner gave an update on discussions with Highland County superintendents and school administrators on plans for starting the 2020-21 school year. Although Warner said there are no definite plans finalized — nor do they have the guidance from the state yet — the health department has already begun meeting with superintendents to address their concerns. That includes schools surveying parents, staff and students regarding their “perception of risk” for the new school year.

“We’re starting to get a really good idea of what sort of approach to school opening is really going to work in Highland County and what isn’t,” Warner said.

Some of the primary factors being considered, as outlined by the health commissioner, include:

• Face coverings. Parents are “not in favor” of requiring face coverings for students, and it has been pointed out that some of the younger students need to see teachers’ facial expressions as “part of learning how to communicate in public.”

• Transportation. Schools are looking into ways to make this “practical, reasonable and also safe,” with a limited number of buses making physical distancing a challenge.

• Schedules. There has been discussion of doing a split schedule where students only attend classes certain days of the week; whether class sizes can be decreased; or whether students in a certain grade “can stay together all day,” something particularly difficult at the high school level.

• Symptom monitoring. Superintendents are trying to determine whether this should be done at home or at the schools.

• Internet access. Some areas of the county have limited internet access, or some families have multiple students who would require multiple devices to do online classes every day.

“We have some recommendations we’re in the process of drafting right now,” Warner said. “We’re going to really be working closely with our schools to figure out what makes sense for Highland County.”

That includes taking all of the concerns mentioned above into account, as well as tailoring the guidelines to fit the rural area as opposed to larger schools.

“When it comes time to go back to school, hopefully the entire county will have a consistent framework,” Warner said. “All the schools will be on the same page with how we’re going to operate, and all the parents and all the students will understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Warner also said that the concerns for COVID-19 are not necessarily for the students themselves, who have a lower incidence rate, but more for “further spread in the community,” including students’ high-risk family members.

In response to a viewer’s question, Warner and Jackman addressed the increase in cases currently being seen statewide and nationally, as more businesses continue to reopen and testing becomes more widely available.

“I think it makes sense that the more people move around and the more they interact with other people outside their own circle, the more opportunity there is for disease transmission,” Warner said. “We do watch really closely from the health department side of things, to look at those numbers and see when we start seeing that exponential growth and when we need to address it.

“The other thing that we watch very closely, and I think is probably a better indicator right now, is what’s the current medical surge capacity at our hospitals.”

Warner said that Ohio is currently “not in a bad place at all” compared to other states, but whether that continues is “more up to the communities than up to us.”

“I’m going to play devil’s advocate,” Jackman said. “Have the numbers increased simply for the fact they opened back up, or has the testing gotten better? We’ve talked all along that this has been here, and we’ve known that. That was the whole point of flattening the curve and social distancing and everything else, long before we started having conversations of serology testing and antibodies and everything else.

“Whether it’s an increase or more access to testing, or there are actual cases that have come from the protests and the stuff opening back up and everything else — regardless of the cause, we still need to be vigilant in preventing it.”

Warner said that some Highland County cases stemmed from asymptomatic individuals screened in medical facilities, so that shows that some cases reported are a result of increased testing.

“One of the ways to watch this and understand it a little differently — one of the things we watch really closely is not necessarily just looking at the increased number of cases, but also looking at the proportion of positive cases versus the total number of tests that were taken,” Warner said. “Let’s say we give 100 tests, and 10 come back positive. The next week, we do 200 tests, and 30 come back positive. We’ve actually increased the percentage of positive test results, so the proportion of positives when that starts to increase, based on the overall number of tests you perform, is another indicator that this isn’t just an increase based on more testing ability.”

Several viewers asked about shutting down businesses as numbers of COVID-19 cases increase.

“We’re actually going in the opposite direction right now and trying to responsibly open up different sectors of business,” Warner said. “Just about everything has been opened up at this point, and we’re starting to see a shift away from opening up only certain sectors and not others, and looking more toward making risk-based decisions and finding ways to do things safely.

“There is the risk that if we start to see uncontrolled growth of cases, and we start to see a lot of increase in southwest Ohio or in Highland County in particular that we would have to look at additional closures, but right now we’re not anywhere near that.”

Warner also pointed out that there is more information about the virus now than in March and more testing availability, “so I think we have other ways to handle a large-scale outbreak” besides another total shutdown.

On a related note, Warner said he expects to see a “shift” in mass gathering limits.

“If you’ve been following the guidelines and orders that are out there, there’s exemptions for banquet halls and exemptions for lots of different things,” Warner said. “Restaurants can have people in dining now, and [there are] a lot of different ways and different specific rules that are really designed for individual sectors.

“I know it’s difficult for us on the education and enforcement side of this to figure out what category does someone fall into and can they operate the way they want to or not.”

At the county level, Warner said the health department has implemented a “risk-based approach, looking at each event specifically on its own merits.”

“A good example of this is for the longest time, the state would not give us any guidelines for how to handle auctions,” Warner said. “We made the decision, before the state was able to give us guidelines, that the risk levels for an auction are really pretty similar to what you’d see in a general retail environment. If they can follow the guidelines for retail operation, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to be operating.

“We’ve used that same sort of common-sense approach for the past few weeks and basically finding ways to help people find the right way and do it safely.”

Warner said that the state’s focus groups are looking into “moving in the same direction,” including the possibility of “county-specific risk levels.”

The health commissioner also noted that as more local events are scheduled, the health department “has receive some funding to support purchasing some additional hand sanitizer stations so that we can provide those to people that are holding events and make sure they have access to good hand sanitizer.”

“We’re also looking at some community signage so that as people hold bigger events, we can offer them — if they’re interested — some signs that talk about social distancing, face coverings and the general messages we push all the time,” Warner said. “We’re already there, and it sounds like the state is starting to move toward risk-based decision-making also.”

Jackman pointed out that decisions shouldn’t be “one size fits all,” as cities such as Columbus have a larger population than all of Highland County.

“What works for Columbus doesn’t necessarily work here,” Jackman said. “That’s great that they’re starting to look at risk-based as opposed to just a blanket covering everything.”

As more Ohioans plan for summer vacations, one local employer asked about protecting workers as people travel in and out of the county. Warner said that people are already traveling to and from “hotspots” for COVID-19, including Myrtle Beach.

“There’s no state guidelines right now for requiring people to stay home or quarantine,” Warner said. “We’re recommending that people stick with self-monitoring for 14 days when you come home from vacation. Watch yourself for a fever, and use some common sense. As always, if you feel sick, stay home. Otherwise, we’ve got to find that balance between life as normal and being safe.

“Talk to your employer, let them know you’re watching yourself for symptoms, and your employer should be checking you as you come in every day as well. That way, we can keep anybody that is sick from coming in and causing problems.”

Warner also answered a frequently asked question regarding the reopening of the Highland County Senior Center. Warner said that he has been meeting with the center’s director, Mechell Frost, and another meeting is scheduled next week “to talk about when they can reopen and how to do that safely.”

“She’s been working hard to get ready,” Warner said. “We’ve heard some rumors, nothing official, but some rumors that the governor’s going to come out with some visitation rules for nursing homes to kind of do that safely. I think we’re getting to a place where we feel like we can have a common-sense balance between having the senior center open but still protecting those older Highland County residents.”

Another frequently asked question is regarding fireworks in the community, as July 4 approaches. Although the state initially said they could not be held, Warner said the county determined “the risk factors are not significant.”

“We’ve told all our local fireworks events that they’re OK to proceed and to encourage people to keep their distance socially,” Warner said. “If they’re around other people, we encourage them to cover their face so we don’t have any accidental spread of disease and have access to hand-washing.

“We’ve been saying that for a few weeks now, just last night, the lieutenant governor came out and said ‘yeah, you can have your fireworks events, but you need to do the following things.’ He listed all the things we’ve been talking about already.”

Several viewers also asked about wearing masks, particularly if they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask safely. As previously reported, the state has listed exemptions to wearing masks, even in a workplace setting.

“Let’s be honest, nobody likes wearing face coverings. You’re not alone in wishing that rule would go away, but it does make sense from a public health standpoint,” Warner said. “We’re continuing to encourage people to wear face coverings when they can, but if you are not able to wear one due to medical reasons, or practical reasons with your job, or safety reasons, there are a variety of different ways that you can be exempted from wearing masks. That’s a conversation to have with your supervisor and your medical professional.”

Warner added that when the state revises the Stay Safe Ohio order after its initial expiration in July, “I expect they’re going to continue a requirement for people who are working to use masks and to keep wearing face coverings.”

“I honestly get a little tired of people thinking that wearing a face covering is a sign of weakness or that you’re following the liberal agenda,” Warner said. “It really, simply, is a practical way to slow down how far the droplets that you produce when you breathe and you speak from spreading. That’s all it is. It’s a fence for what you’re breathing out to protect — if you happen to be sick, either you’re pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic — to keep you from giving it to somebody else.

“I really would like people to look at that from a practical standpoint and avoid putting political labels on it.”

Jackman agreed, saying that “we don’t condone mask shaming.”

Warner also gave a review of facilities in the area offering testing for COVID-19.

“If you’re looking for a place to get tested and your doctor is out, normally the doctor will have somebody who covers in their absence, a person you can call if they’re not available, or their health system can point you to another person to get tested,” Warner said. “We also have our local federally qualified health center, Highland Health Providers, doing a lot of testing for us. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find access.

“You also have the ability now at Corner Pharmacy in Greenfield to do testing with no doctor’s order, so there’s quite a few different ways to get connected with testing. If you keep running into walls, give us a call here at the health department, and we’ll work with you and try to find an option.”

Roman Family Healthcare in Greenfield was also offering antibody testing as available. The state is also conducting pop-up testing in several areas, although none have been announced for Highland County.

“The other thing we’re starting to see in some parts of the region is a little bit different type of test called an antigen test,” Warner said. “It looks for current ongoing infection using a blood test. Once we get some more guidelines from the state on how to implement, handle and track that, we’ll share it with everybody.”

Warner said that the state also needs to determine case reporting requirements in the event of a positive antibody or antigen test, as currently the county lists cumulative totals based on lab-confirmed and probable cases.

“Our plan right now is to keep those individual numbers separate from our total numbers and really report those on an individual basis based on what type of test that it is,” Warner said. “We’re going to keep looking at that and try to be consistent with the state.”

The meeting also included some topics covered at past conferences, such as a warning to fact-check information shared on social media; information on the Ohio National Guard providing services to long-term care facilities; and how to properly wear a mask. Warner also reminded the community that public health nurse Barb Eaglin is retiring as of this week.

“She’s been an important part of our team,” Warner said. “I really appreciate Barb and everything she’s done for this community and this health department.”

In his closing comments, Warner discussed “quarantine fatigue.”

“People are tired of talking about COVID-19,” Warner said. “They’re exhausted from being preached at all the time, from me and other people in public health. I encourage you guys to stick with the normal common-sense precautions we keep talking about. Wash your hands, and cover your face so if you are an asymptomatic case or pre-symptomatic, you’re not giving this to people you care about.

“We don’t want to end up seeing a spike of cases in Highland County. We don’t want to see a spike of cases in Ohio. We want to keep a steady rate. We’re never going be able to get rid of it totally, but we want to control how quickly this disease moves so we can get as close to back to normal as possible. Be patient, and stick with it. I know it’s exhausting.”