During a media briefing on Wednesday, three Cincinnati officials loudly sounded the alarm that COVID-19 still is a major problem within the region and is actually getting worse.
"We are certainly at a time when we are seeing more cases than ever," Hamilton County Public Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman said on Jan. 5.
Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus said that positive COVID-19 cases within the county have been rising significantly in recent weeks. And while the numbers themselves are notable, Driehaus pointed out that the current figures are part of an alarming trend.
"This number of positive cases in Hamilton County week over week is about 11,000. 11,000! We've never been anywhere near 11,000 positive cases in Hamilton County. I had to go way back to December (of 2020) to even get anywhere near it, and that was only like 5,800 (cases)," Driehaus said. "It's an astounding number."
Driehaus said that the spike partly is due to more people getting tested for COVID-19, but the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus also has been rapidly spreading throughout the region.
"I checked the numbers twice because I was so shocked by that high number," Driehaus said. "But I do think it's astounding, and it's a wake-up call for the community to try to do all we can to keep the spread of this disease as low as possible in Hamilton County."
Kesterman said that from last week to this week, Hamilton County nearly doubled its number of active COVID-19 cases, from 11,700 cases to 20,141 cases. He added that in December of 2020, when much of the country shut down due to a high number of cases and hospitalizations and healthcare workers were pleading for relief and equipment, the county had 716 daily cases. But now, things are worse.
"We've kind of used that (December 2020) as the benchmark for what is bad as far as caseload," Kesterman explained. "Unfortunately, today we are on Mount Everest with (a seven-day average of) 1,472 cases of COVID-19 within our community without a top of the mountain in sight. We continue to grow day after day."
Kesterman said that the virus's reproductive value within the region is "extremely high," at 1.65 for Hamilton County and 1.66 for the 14-county region (the reproductive value indicates how contagious a virus is — the average number of people who will contract the virus from an infected person).
Kesterman also said that both the region's positivity rate (the number of people who test positive out of all coronavirus tests performed) and confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations are at "all-time highs," at 27% and 825, respectively. Of those hospitalized with the coronavirus, 177 are in the intensive care unit, and 128 are on ventilators.
Kesterman said that COVID-19 vaccines are key to avoiding severe medical complications or death from the virus, with 95% of locally hospitalized individuals being unvaccinated. Though breakthrough COVID cases do occur in people who have been vaccinated — largely due to the virus's high transmissibility within communities — the authorized Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines lessen the severity of COVID symptoms.
"The No. 1 way to stay out of the hospital is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is extremely effective and an amazing tool," Kesterman said. "Most people who get COVID if they are vaccinated are having minor cases (and) minor symptoms."
Dr. Richard Lofgren, UC Health's president and CEO, said that Greater Cincinnati hospitals continue to be strained by a virus that continues to change.
"This pandemic is not over," Lofgren said, echoing what he had told the commissioners in December. "In fact, it's heating up more and more intense than it ever has been in the entire almost two years that we've been wrestling with this. And I'm the first to tell you that all of us, we're tired of it."
Lofgren said that the contagiousness of the Omicron variant, which has largely taken over as the dominant variant within the United States, is "just stunning." He said that Omicron is not causing "quite the intensity of the disease" as the recent Delta variant had, but it spreads much more quickly within communities.
"It truly doubles the number of cases every two to three days," Lofgren said. "It's a math problem. And though a smaller number of people require hospitalization, a small number on a large number is a very large number of individuals. We are in the process of overwhelming our healthcare systems."
As he did in December, Lofgren referred to Cleveland being overrun with coronavirus patients and hospital staff there being stretched to the brink. He said that the staff shortages and postponing procedures occurring up north is happening here.
"There's no question that this surge of (COVID) cases, though less of them are translating into hospitalizations, there's just so many more of those that the hospitals are, in fact, getting overwhelmed," Lofgren said. "And it does squeeze our ability to take care of non-COVID patients, as well."
Lofgren said that healthcare workers are exhausted from a pandemic that won't stop, and many have left the industry.
"We are also facing a tremendous labor shortage. This pandemic has sort of been marked by various shortages," Lofgren said. "When we were first introduced to this virus, we didn't have enough PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect our staff. And then we didn't have enough testing. And then we didn't have enough vaccines. And at this point in time, we just don't have enough staff. "
"The staff and the frontline nurses and care providers have just done heroic work throughout this pandemic. They can't maintain the idea of doing double shifts and overtime in the way that they have," he continued.
Lofgren, Kesterman and Driehaus all stressed the importance of COVID-19 vaccines, masking and physically distancing to stay safer, as these methods were effective in helping to "flatten the curve" in 2020. Hamilton County provides free COVID-19 vaccinations and at-home testing kits. Though kits recently ran out, officials said more are on the way. Learn more and find locations at testandprotectcincy.com.
Watch the full briefing below.
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