As we head into two major holiday weekends, more Cincinnati leaders are warning about the region's — and the state's and country's — significant increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
During a Dec. 21 briefing, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, Health Commissioner Melba Moore and Mayor-Elect Aftab Pureval jointly urged residents to take COVID-19 precautions and to make difficult decisions about gathering indoors with family and friends.
"Christmas is coming, and we know what it looked like last year, where we were doing what I consider 'drive-by Christmas' and 'drive-by Thanksgiving.' We were talking about having our windows raised or being outdoors to celebrate," Moore said. "Well, we're there again because we want you to protect your loved ones."
Cincinnati's coronavirus cases have increased in December, which is largely attributed to the virus spreading during indoor Thanksgiving gatherings. According to city data, cases spiked with the Delta variant from July until October before going down for a few weeks.
The city has 213 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Dec. 22, and there has been an average of 123 new cases each day over the past 21 days. Patients admitted to the hospital with COVID are staying a median of five days.
Cincinnatians ages 20-49 make up the bulk of new COVID-19 cases, according to the data. Out of the total cases, people ages 10-49 are predominant.
Doctors have warned that gathering indoors — particularly with unvaccinated individuals, without masking and without social distancing — increases the likelihood to both spread and get COVID-19.
Among Cincinnati's confirmed COVID-19 patients, 22% said they had gone into retail stores, 12% had been in either restaurants or schools/daycares, and 10% were at parties with family or friends. Those ages 20-40 were most likely to attend a large gathering, as were white patients by an overwhelming margin.
"Despite all the things we've been through and all the positives like the vaccines, the case load is still very high and getting higher," Cranley said, adding that doctors recommend getting a third dose of an authorized vaccine booster. "All the evidence shows that if you are fully vaccinated, you are extremely unlikely to die of COVID, and if you get it — and many people are getting breakthrough cases — your symptoms will be less severe and (you will be) extremely less likely to have to go to the hospital."
Along with COVID-19 vaccinations and masking, Cranley urged residents to use compassion when dealing with people, particularly retailers.
"Be sensitive to businesses who require masks. They are trying to protect vulnerable employees," Cranley said.
Moore said that 69% of the Cincinnati region has been vaccinated, but breakthrough COVID-19 cases do occur because of the large number of unvaccinated individuals who can easily transmit the virus and because the virus continues to mutate (according to the Ohio Department of Health, 62% of Hamilton County residents have started or completed a COVID-19 vaccine series).
"It is becoming less severe, but it's becoming more contagious. So please exercise personal responsibility," Cranley said.
"The single most important thing that all of us can do, and many of us have already done, is to get vaccinated. Second thing is to get the booster," Moore added. "We have vaccines available for our children. Get your children vaccinated."
Doctors in Cincinnati and throughout the nation have urged COVID-19 vaccinations since they became available at the start of the year. Pediatric vaccines have been authorized since late summer.
Omicron, the latest coronavirus variant, has shown high transmissibility. Until recently, Delta has been the most transmissible, concerning variant.
On Dec. 1, Dr. Stephen Feagins, the chief clinical officer and an internal medicine specialist at Mercy Health, explained that coronavirus variants happen because there are plenty of humans that still host and transmit the virus, giving it a chance to change into something else.
"Viruses replicate. That's what they do. It's a numbers game. That's why Delta is more transmissible than other variants, because there's just a lot more of it. It replicates faster and more efficiently. It's all about replication," Feagins said. "Whenever there's a mistake, if you will, in replication, that mistake allows the virus to transmit better, and then that particular mistake will be propagated. A virus has to be in some person or a living animal to do that. An antiviral stops replication one way or another."
"By stopping replication, that's how we fight a virus. It's all about replication inside human beings," he said, adding that vaccinations help that task.A survey from New York-based medical malpractice law firm Duffy & Duffy says that more than half of Ohio's residents — 55% — will demand that their holiday gatherings be only for those vaccinated from COVID-19; those families will not welcome unvaccinated individuals into the home.
Leaders at regional hospital systems have been saying for months that they're under great strain with a rise in patients and a decrease in staff, thanks largely to burnout or retirement. Healthcare workers are fearful of another COVID-19 spike like the one that devastated the country last winter.
"Last December and January were terrifying. They were really frightening times. We didn't see where it was going to end. We knew that we had some vaccine on board, but it was still limited," Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said in November. "We can't do that again. We really can't do that again as a healthcare system and as a region. So all the more reason to get vaccinated so we keep that peak down and we don't live through what we lived through last winter."
During a Dec. 15 media briefing with Hamilton County officials, Dr. Richard Lofgren, UC Health's president and CEO, said that COVID-19 continues to be a big threat within the region.
"If there's any message I have that's highlighted in the data, it's that this pandemic is not over. It is active and alive and is actually overwhelming our health systems," Lofgren said.
Last weekend, several Cleveland hospitals took out a full-page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer begging the public to get COVID-19 vaccines because that region's healthcare systems are overwhelmed with patients. Lofgren said that based on Cincinnati's regional data, he estimates that kind of strain to be here within a few weeks if no action is taken.
"Their staff is stretched, they're canceling elective procedures, they're diverting hospitals. They simply do not have the capacity," Lofgren said. "And when I look at their path and trajectory... I feel like we in southwest Ohio may only be a couple weeks behind," he added."
Moore, Cincinnati's health commissioner, recommended COVID testing before gathering with loved ones and to consider declining invitations.
"If you get tested with a rapid test and it's positive, that means you might have to change your plans," Moore said. "You'd rather change your plans than have someone ill."