On Oct. 22, Clark County was placed on watch to move to Level Four of the Ohio Department of Health’s Public Health Advisory System (OPHAS), as the county checked six of the system’s seven indicators. While Clark County was removed from the Level Four Watch status on Oct. 29, The Wittenberg Torch looked into what moving into Level Four would have looked like for Wittenberg’s faculty, students and staff in addition to the surrounding Clark County community.
When Clark County was placed on Level Four watch, the county met six out of seven indicators on OPHAS. The first indicator triggered was Clark County’s 251.34 cases per 100,000 residents which exceeded the 50 cases per 100,000 residents alert level set by Ohio Department of Health. Additionally, Clark County had a seven-day average of 21.14 new COVID-19 cases per day, which triggered indicator two on OPHAS.
Clark County also recorded 52% of new cases in non-congregate housing which was above the 50% triggering level of OPHAS. Indicator four on OPHAS was triggered as Clark County saw an average of 6.14 emergency room visits for COVID-19 in a seven-day period, between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11. The fifth indicator on OPHAS was triggered between Oct. 8 and Oct. 15, when Clark County had an average of 25.29 hospital outpatient visits for COVID-19-like illnesses. The indicator which pushed Clark County on to Level Four Watch, which was an average of 1.43 COVID-19 hospital admissions between Oct. 1 and Oct. 5.
According to Charles Patterson of the Clark County Combined Health District (CCCHD), Clark County failed to trigger indicators for emergency room visits and hospital admissions on OPHAS. According to the Ohio Department of Health OPHAS Dashboard, Clark County reported a seven-day average of 1.86 of emergency room visits for COVID-19-like illnesses, in addition to an average of 0.29 hospital admissions between Oct. 20 and Oct. 27.
If Clark County had continued to trigger six or all indicators on OPHAS, the county would have moved into Level Four of the Ohio Public Health Advisory System. As of Oct. 29, 2020, no counties in Ohio have reached Level Four, which is defined as severe exposure and spread of COVID-19 according to documentation on OPHAS from the Ohio Department of Health. The Ohio Department of Health did not respond to interview requests from The Torch.
“We were trying a different tack than the total shutdown that we saw in March and April and so we wanted to make sure that people were aware that it was a dangerous situation, but the most immediate thing that you would have seen was a lot of messaging about the amount of [coronavirus] in our community,” Patterson said. CCCHD would have used social media and other means of communication to connect with residents. Additionally, residents of Clark County would have seen an immediate push from CCCHD and local partners urging work from home.
If Clark County had moved on Level Four, CCCHD would have recommended that Wittenberg continue with in-person learning as long as the situation was controlled. This recommendation was repeated by President Michael Frandsen, who confirmed that the messages from Patterson and Governor Mike DeWine were that Wittenberg should “stay the course.” Additionally, Frandsen confirmed that Wittenberg would not be required to impose new restrictions as long as all current restrictions were kept.
Frandsen and Patterson both repeatedly pushed that the spread of COVID-19 was occurring in informal social gatherings, which was confirmed in Clark County’s COVID-19 cases in the last week, where 87.10% of cases came from non-congregate living.
“It is coming from small outbreaks or person to person transmission, usually in homes,” Patterson said. “So you and you friend comes over and we are going to have a couple beers and a pizza. We trust you, we know you, you don’t look sick. We all sit around, have beers, pizza and play poker afterward. It is a dinner party where somebody was sick and did not know it.”
When asked if Wittenberg was seeing spread in social situations described by Patterson, Frandsen deflected.
“We certainly saw spread like that in September, we have not seen it since,” Frandsen said. “We still have no staff cases, and we cannot mitigate the risks completely, but the places where we have more control over the risk mitigation, we seem to be successful.”
In Sept., The Torch reported that Wittenberg was the only member institution to have students return for the fall without required COVID-19 testing. When asked if Wittenberg would require student to be tested for COVID-19 prior to spring semester move-in, Frandsen responded that “I am not planning to at this time, but that could change.” During an interview with The Torch in Sept., Frandsen claimed that “the challenge with testing is that it is a point in time… I could get tested right now, not show symptoms, not shot a positive test but be contagious and if you cannot do a testing regimen it is not particularly effective.”
According to Frandsen, Wittenberg is planning to host a pilot testing program, which will allow the university to test 3% of the student body each week using state provided antigen tests. The pilot program will be focused on students in the nursing program and student-athletes in high contact sports, namely, basketball, field hockey, football, lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, water polo as defined by the NCAA. The pilot testing program will aim to test Wittenberg’s testing logistics and process to test students using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, should an antigen test come back positive. The Centers for Disease Control defines antigen tests as point of care testing which can have results returned in approximately 15 minutes while being less accurate at detecting SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19.
The Wittenberg Torch writers Braeden Bowen, Meghan Nadzam and Atticus Dewey contributed to this report.