"Wear a Mask" Uptown sign

A roadsign on Court Street. Photo by Ben Peters

Cases of COVID-19 in Athens County have for the first time shifted away from younger demographics toward older residents in what’s been described by public health officials as community spread that couldn’t be traced back to Ohio University student activity.

While people ages 29 and younger still make up the lion’s share of positive cases in the county, infections are rising among older residents who are at significantly higher risk of becoming hospitalized and even dying from the virus, placing OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in danger of becoming overwhelmed in the near future.

“At this point it’s no longer fair to exclusively place blame on our student population,” Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper told Athens City Council last week.

Pepper said, for example, that a long-term care facility in the county reported 19 new cases between Friday and Monday. According to an Athens NEWS database, the numbers of positive cases among age groups older than 29 have increased in recent weeks and they continue to report much higher rates of hospitalizations than younger demographics.

Two deaths are associated with the virus in Athens County, both of which were men in the 60-69 age bracket, according to The Ohio Department of Health.

O’Bleness’ capacity to care for COVID-19 patients is severely limited with only eight intensive care unit beds. Though, several OhioHealth sites across the state have been designated as “locations to care for a surge of critical care patients” in case O’Bleness were to become overwhelmed, including Riverside Methodist Hospital, Grant Medical Center, Doctors Hospital, Mansfield Hospital and Marion General Hospital.

OhioHealth has recently experienced an increase in admittance into emergency rooms, Pepper said.

Virus cases are soaring statewide and nationwide to heights never before seen. Athens County has remained Level 2, or orange, within the Ohio Public Health Advisory Alert System for weeks largely because of the relatively small numbers of hospitalizations, but local health experts expect that designation to change as community spread runs its course and more vulnerable people fall ill.

Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, said cases are rising, in part, because the weather is getting colder and people are socializing indoors where the virus thrives. In his experience, Athens is generally taking social distancing and masking seriously, but residents need to continue to trudge forward using such measures to prevent exponential community spread, he said.

“We need to all be aware that right now the situation is not good and it’s going to stay dangerous over the winter months,” Just said.

ODH notified Pepper last week that the viral load discovered within wastewater at the Athens Waste Water Treatment Plant has increase “tenfold” in recent weeks. But Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said the city is unable to determine where exactly the viral wastewater comes from, making it difficult to pinpoint where virus hot spots might exist.

Ohio University has continued to experience slowdown in cases reported among its students following outbreaks in three residence halls in recent weeks that were all ordered into quarantine by the health department.

Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations, told Council she is fairly confident that cases reported on campus will remain low as she and her team continue to ramp up asymptomatic testing capacity. They plan to implement weekly testing for all students living on campus and hope that they’re able to test students living off-campus bi-weekly.

Students will only remain on-campus through Nov. 20 when they will be sent home until spring semester.

Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle reported to Council that the department doesn’t receive large numbers of complaints related to the city mask mandate or mass gatherings, though he suggested the department doesn’t enforce masking as often as it breaks up large gatherings.

He commended students since his officers found they haven’t been partying in large groups as often as some community members suggest they do.

Ice said cases discovered among students who live off-campus often arose from small gatherings of between two and three people — not large parties or bars.

Pepper said the health department is asking ODH for more pop-up testing sites, where residents can be tested free of charge and without a physicians’ order or an appointment, unlike many other sites in the area, to help determine to scope of spread in Athens.

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