Court Street

Many businesses Uptown have adapted to the pandemic through closures and the use of safety equipment. File art by Sydney Dawes.

Several reports from The White House Coronavirus Task Force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence with the help of Dr. Deborah Birx, show that Athens is the only locality across the state that’s remained in the “Red Zone” since at least Sept. 20 based on metrics that outline the virus’ presence within a population.

The reports, obtained and published by The Center for Public Integrity through a public records request, are issued weekly to governors about the state of the pandemic, but they are not shared publicly and news organizations and state public health officials have criticized the data reported, or the lack thereof.

The Athens NEWS was only able to review the four most recent weeks worth of reports. A public records request has since been filed with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office to obtain both past and future White House Coronavirus Task Force reports of Ohio.

The White House’s most recent report on Ohio, published Oct. 11, shows that Athens County’s positivity rate based on PCR lab tests is between 10.1 percent and 19.9 percent, and that the rate has changed very little week over week. The county has been marked in the “Red Zone” every week since Sept. 20, but other counties have also appeared with that designation for consecutive weeks. Athens, Portsmouth and Van Wert are the three localities in the red this week.

The Athens locality within the report is defined as a Core-Based Statistical Area, or a metropolitan area with an urban cluster and a population of at least 10,000, including adjacent territory that is socially and economically integrated, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The White House’s coronavirus reports have been called into question by Ohio public health officials for the way it reports test positivity and news organizations have also in the past criticized them for inconsistent messaging on the efficacy of wearing masks. 

An Ohio Department of Health official told The Columbus Dispatch in August that it doesn’t use White House Coronavirus Task Force data, saying it provides an incomplete picture of testing in the state.

The official also told the newspaper that the Trump Administration is totaling tests from labs in the county where the facility is located and not based on a patient’s residence, which could lead to inflated numbers.

“It’s not great data, which is why we’re not using it,” ODH data director Brian Fowler told The Dispatch.

The White House’s reports note that some state data may be incomplete because of reporting delays and that some data may be backfilled over time, which could result in week-to-week changes.

Ruth Dudding, a spokesperson for the The Athens City-County Health Department, said they do not receive copies of The White House Coronavirus Task Force's weekly report on Ohio from DeWine's office.

DeWine’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Cases on average in Athens County have continued to rise since late August. As of Tuesday, Athens was ranked the No. 1 county in Ohio in terms of COVID-19 case occurrence, ODH reported.

Athens County continues to be labeled as a Level 2 county in the Ohio Public Health Advisory Alert System despite the surge in reported cases, largely because of the lack of hospitalizations associated with the virus. Young people ages 20-29 continue to make up the vast majority of confirmed and probable cases in Athens County. 

Most of the young people testing positive are Ohio University students, Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations and a Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine faculty member, previously said.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include comment from Ruth Dudding.

Load comments