COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state’s seven-day COVID-19 case average dropped below 5,000 for the first time since Nov. 9 and positive hospital trends have led Gov. Mike DeWine to ease off the 10 p.m. curfew starting this week, a development he celebrated during a news conference on Thursday.
The positive trends are bringing hope to a state that has been facing a fall surge since September when case averages bottomed below 600 per day. Ohio has a long way to go to get back to those levels — case levels are still elevated more than 8 times from that September trough — but the state says businesses are in desperate need of some relief.
Every public school in Ohio, except one, has agreed to offering in-person instruction by March 1, Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday. It means the staff at those facilities will have the opportunity to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in the coming weeks.
About 500 schools in Ohio are expected to begin vaccinations next week, the governor said. Those schools have already been notified if they are in the week one group. The state’s plan is to vaccinate all school staff in a county in a one-week period, hitting all 88 counties in the next four weeks.
“Most of them will be able to complete that in a week. Some of our larger counties will not be able to totally get done in a week and it will take two weeks,” DeWine said.
The state’s latest data showed 376 school districts, about 46%, were fully in-person, while 36% were in hybrid models, and only 17.6% were in fully remote models.
Some districts, including Cincinnati Public Schools, are getting early access to vaccines this week. DeWine said the district’s superintendent called him and said they needed the vaccines to get their kids back in class quickly. Cincinnati schools brought K-3 students back Thursday and aims to bring all students back over the next three weeks, he said. DeWine had to start somewhere, and the superintendent made a good case.
The governor said the state expects to continue to vaccinate seniors older than 65 through February, simultaneously with the approximately 300,000 school staff who are now being allocated vaccines.
“We're trying to do these two things at once,” DeWine said. “We hope to have about 100,000 vaccines available for people who are in the older population every week. At the same time, we'll be having about 55,000 that will go to our schools.”
School vaccinations will occur on school grounds and, in other cases, at clinics for multiple different schools.
“We’ve given some leeway,” DeWine said. “You can be five days a week or you can be hybrid. We'd like for them to be five days a week.”
The governor said many schools will have fully vaccinated staff by March 1, but the governor acknowledged some school staff likely won’t be getting second shots until the “first early weeks of March.”
DeWine's briefing Thursday came on the last day of Ohio’s 10 p.m. curfew. The state’s coronavirus case numbers continued to improve this week, and the average daily cases now stands at 4,859, according to the state’s data.
“We will look at this again in two weeks and we'll see where we are. If this trend continues. We may be able to go to midnight,” he said. “And if it really continues… and we get down to seven days below 2,500 (current hospitalizations) then we'll be able to go with no curfew.”
As of Thursday’s update, 2,829 people were hospitalized in Ohio with COVID-19.
The governor offered a some hope to embalmers in Ohio who are seeking vaccines and are currently not eligible in Ohio. DeWine said keeping funerals open, sadly, is an important priority due to pandemic, and his team is looking closely at reconsidering vaccine eligibility for death care workers.
“People who do embalming make a very strong case. We’re actually reviewing that right now. We don’t have anything to announce,” he said.
When asked about vaccine dashboards showing that Ohio -- the seventh most populous state -- ranked ninth for vaccines administered, DeWine said, “Well, we’re never doing well enough,” but he said he hasn’t looked at the data this week. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted chimed in and said his team believes Ohio is ahead of Michigan and Illinois.
The governor said his team is hearing Johnson & Johnson's vaccine could be authorized “late February” or “early March,” which would accelerate immunizations for the general public.
“Look, the easiest way to get all the numbers up on the board would be to open up seven sites around the state and just go. But we don't think that's the way that we protect the most vulnerable people,” DeWine said.
He said the state is developing a portal that should be active soon to streamline vaccine registration.
“They will go on the internet in one place, one portal, and you will be able then to link in your county to places and we will be able to register by the internet, so that that should speed things up and make life simpler,” DeWine said.
The governor said the state is confident all schools can open safely, especially with the vaccines, and discussed the the conversations his team has had with school officials throughout the fall.
“Principals and school superintendents were telling me, ‘Look, we're not getting spread in class. We're just not getting spread. We have Mary over here, she had COVID, and nobody's got it in that classroom.’ They quarantined, but nobody ended up getting it,” DeWine said.
He said the state conducted its own studies which backed up the anecdotal reports from superintendents. Teachers unions have objected to the scientific rigor of the state’s study.
“A teacher can feel pretty confident if you go into that classroom and everyone's wearing a mask,” he said.
Ohio Department of Health chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said officials believe it takes about two weeks after the second shot for vaccine recipients to have the full protection the vaccines offer.
The governor said the state is trying to resist giving doses to younger populations at this time.
“We're getting these questions, ‘Why don't you include our group?’ and we're pushing back and we're resisting, and the reason we're resisting, is the data is still the same — 87% of people in Ohio who have died of COVID have been 65 years of age or older.”