Paging Dr. Amy Acton. Help! We are rudderless and reeling. Our health care system is crashing. Hospitals are running out of beds. COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations are through the roof. Hospitalized children are outpacing adults. Especially in five states. Ohio is one.
With only half the state fully vaccinated, the even more infectious virus is ripping through the unvaccinated population with a vengeance. We’re now at more than 29,000 total deaths from COVID and bracing for a brutal January. Ohio is flailing in a “code blue” medical emergency. The patient is critical. But the rapid response team got waylaid. By politics.
How far we have fallen from the dogged, science-driven approach that swiftly stanched the severity of outbreaks — to now. Today, a state once nationally lauded for its prudent, pre-emptive shutdowns that successfully blunted Ohio’s pandemic toll, is cited as standout example of abject failure in public health. It is among the top states at the bottom of the fully vaccinated rates. It recently logged the highest number of COVID hospitalizations, adjusted for population, of any state in the country.
Days ago, it recorded the highest single day of new infections since the pandemic began nearly two years ago — and the worst is yet to come. At this writing, Ohio’s positivity rate, in terms of testing, is more than 30%, making it one of the top two states spiraling out of control with COVID cases in the U.S.
Dr. Acton must be shaking her head.
In the early days of the pandemic, the public health expert led the state’s emergency triage with a steely resolve wrapped in a reassuring hug. She gave it to us straight. The situation was bad. We had to rise to the occasion as citizens to pull through our collective trauma. She would be there with us, closely monitoring the patient, following the data, encouraging perseverance through hardship.
But that unifying snapshot of Ohio strength faded fast when petulant politicians grumped about taking orders from a doctor, and a female one no less. She wasn’t the boss of them. In melodramatic legislating, akin to adolescent door-slamming, state lawmakers declared themselves in charge of public health emergencies — skilled as they were in triaging catastrophic medical events. The MAGA crowd also clipped the wings of the executive branch, just in case the governor got any ideas about leading the state in a full-blown crisis.
Gov. Mike DeWine, never a profile in courage, refused to buck the right-wingers calling the shots with his administration. He could have challenged their unconstitutional seizure of his authority, but snagging a second term took precedence over taking a stand in the public interest. He chose to acquiesce to the MAGA cult for his own career and never looked back. Rather than being upstaged by his fellow Republicans, DeWine quickly dropped mask mandates, social distancing and other restrictions ahead of his own criteria for safely doing so.
Instead of leading on the pandemic, DeWine made excuses. He didn’t mandate proven tools for curbing COVID outbreaks because there was no “appetite” for them. His hands were tied by law. It was the legislature’s fault. They’d overrule him. He counted on the “goodwill of the people” to follow the facts. He would recommend public health protections during a raging pandemic but not require compliance (for the greater good) with any of them. Not if he wanted to win reelection.
As the delta variant surged in August, we waited for DeWine to do something. As the school year started with cases up sharply and half of all districts maskless, we waited for DeWine to protect thousands of Ohio students and staff. As children’s hospitals throughout the state begged schools to mandate masks, we waited for DeWine to intervene after he agreed it was the right thing to do.
As the omicron variant packs Ohio hospitals to the breaking point with mostly unvaccinated patients, we wait for DeWine to do something besides propping up besieged medical facilities with reinforced manpower. Sending thousands of National Guard troops to hospitals may temporarily keep short-staffed medical centers operating, but what is the state doing to flatten the straight-up curve of incoming COVID patients? Other life-and-death emergencies, heart attacks, strokes, accidents, etc., also depend on more than deployments.
During a recent press conference, DeWine spoke like a man running for reelection and not like a leader doing what needs to be done to prevent a train wreck from happening in the next few weeks. Vaccination rates have barely budged in Ohio. Urging people to “think about getting it” (vaccines) while acknowledging anti-vaxers with “it’s your choice,” is soft-pedaling the urgency for action now. Urging schools to mandate masks as thousands of kids file into poorly ventilated buildings is a DeWine cop-out when the crisis calls for an immediate statewide mandate. Many districts would welcome the order. But he won’t give it.
When the governor stood next to Dr. Acton in March 2020, he did what needed to be done whether it was popular or not. She plunged into triage right away with hard decisions that saved lives. The former Ohio health director was ruthlessly hounded out of her job for putting the patient first. Unfortunately, DeWine put keeping his job first and let what should have been a stat response to an imminent disaster become a recommendation — lest anyone be offended.
“Ohio Strong” rings hollow.
Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.