OhioHealth COVID-19 Testing Center

OhioHealth COVID-19 Testing Center. Photo by Ben Peters

Although COVID-19 cases in Athens County have exponentially increased since the beginning of July, particularly among young people, experts said in interviews with The Athens NEWS that there isn’t cause for alarm yet.

“The fact that we have a sudden jump all by itself doesn’t mean that we’re going to have an avalanche of cases, but it may mean that we have one if we cannot take care of these clusters,” said Winfried Just, an Ohio University professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases.

Athens County reported 164 new cases of the illness since July 1, following months of few substantial increases. And nearly 78 percent of the county’s 201 lifetime reported infections are comprised of young people under age 29, according to The Ohio Department of Health’s COVID-19 database. The steady rise in cases over the past two weeks – between about 10 and 30 per day — amount to only a “minor surge,” according to Dr. James Gaskell, health commissioner for the Athens City-County Health Department. Though those numbers concern him, he wouldn’t consider it a “major surge” and sound the alarm until the county is reporting several hundred cases in a single day.

Young people are also far less likely to become severely ill or hospitalized from the virus, Gaskell said. Those who are testing positive aren’t flooding the local emergency rooms, hospitalizations are down and there are fewer patients in intensive care units, likely because most who have tested positive in Athens County are young, he said. The rise in young COVID-19 patients is not unique to Athens; it’s become a trend nationwide.

Gaskell is far more concerned about the potential public health consequences of students returning in mass when OU reopens in August than the recent rise in reported cases. He’s also worried about young people unwittingly transmitting the disease to older residents, which could lead to more deaths. Athens County has only reported a single death, which occurred in March.

Gaskell anecdotally discovered through contact tracing efforts that many of the case clusters that recently formed in Athens were the result of small social gatherings of fewer than 10 young people, and not large congregations in bars or at house parties — which can often be superspreading events, Just said.

Though, crowded bars where people talk loudly are “undoubtedly” still a source of spread, and people gathering on front porches for parties remains “risky,” Gaskell said. As are small group hangouts with unmasked participants crowded in apartment units and houses that can’t accommodate social distancing. Gaskell praised Athens City Council’s recent approval of legislation requiring residents to wear masks in public spaces, which could reduce spread in bars, he said.

Many Athens bars are operating at reduced maximum occupancy to allow for social distancing measures, which leads them to quickly fill, resulting in the formation of large crowds outside waiting to gain entry.

That’s “really dangerous,” Gaskell said — especially when those who crowd aren’t masked. Bars, which Just calls “hot spots,” will become a larger issue once students return to town, Gaskell said. Several area bars and restaurants temporarily shuttered within the past week either out of caution given the recent rise in reported cases or because members of their staff tested positive for the virus.

While the vast majority of cases do comprise young people, there’s still a population of people older than 29 who have been recently infected. Some of those infections are the result of community spread, Gaskell said based on his contact tracing efforts. Contact tracing is used by the health department to notify those who came into contact with a COVID-19 patient and encourage them to self-isolate for two weeks to prevent further spread.

“It’s not just spread from young people having parties,” he said, though young people can also contract the virus through community spread and many reported to Gaskell and his contact tracing team that they’re unsure where or how they became infected.

Cases in the county are rising now, rather than in March or April when cases skyrocketed in other regions of the state, largely because some young Athens residents wrongfully psychologically decided the pandemic was over once Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order was lifted and bars, restaurants and other businesses re-opened, Gaskell said. People no longer wanted to shelter indoors during the warm summer months, he said.

“What happened is that a lot of younger people let down their guard and started socializing in ways that are not safe,” Just said.

Young Athens residents, however, aren’t the only people who lowered their defenses. Ohio recorded last Friday its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The United States also set a new single-day case increase record last Thursday as confirmed infections continue to soar in states like Florida, Texas and California.

“I’m more alarmed by this country as a whole than about Athens,” Just said.

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