(Posted Nov. 24, 2020)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
In a special meeting on Nov. 24, the board of Madison County Public Health approved the closure of school buildings, the suspension of sports and school activities, and the suspension of community festivals, events and gatherings. These health orders go into effect Nov. 30, 2020, and run through Jan. 1, 2021.
Chris Cook, Madison County health commissioner, recommended the directives to the board based on the surge of COVID-19 cases in the county over the two-week period preceding the special meeting.
“Based on current data, Madison County will likely be placed on the watch list for being elevated to Level 4 (purple) on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System,” Cook said in a press release dated Nov. 23. “Every way that we measure the spread of COVID-19, and corresponding risk to residents, is significantly increasing.”
He noted that Madison County’s incidence rate is 600 cases per 100,000 people, close to the same ratio reported in Franklin County which is at Level 4/purple. Purple means a county is experiencing severe exposure and spread of COVID-19, and residents are to leave home only for supplies and services.
“The incidences and cases are virtually out of control,” Cook said about Madison County. “These numbers are headed in the wrong direction. We are headed down a path that I fear will only get worse.” He said he is especially worried about the upcoming holiday season.
Earlier this month, the health department directed schools in the county to make adjustments to meet six-foot social distancing guidelines for the period between Thanksgiving break and winter break. For most of the districts, that was going to mean moving to hybrid learning formats that reduce the number of students in school and, therefore, reduce the potential for exposure to the virus.
Since then, the number of cases and exposures in schools and around the county have gone up significantly, leading to the public health board’s order that schools close and go to 100 percent remote/virtual learning.
Between Nov. 9 and Nov. 23, COVID-19 cases among Madison County students and school staff members increased as follows:
- confirmed cases–up 400 percent;
- probable cases (those who had close contact with someone who tested positive and who are exhibiting specific symptoms)–up 300 percent;
- suspected cases (those who are exhibiting symptoms but who have not been tested)–up 38 percent; and
- currently quarantined due to close contact–up 295 percent. The actual number went from 149 students to 589 students in the two-week period.
“I’ve said that our schools will dictate the direction of the pandemic just as much as anything else anyone is doing,” Cook said.
He praised the county’s school districts for the work they have done to try to mitigate the spread of the virus, but he said the risks are not contained to the four walls of a school building or classroom.
“Schools do have an impact on our community’s health,” he said.
During the health board’s special meeting, Cook shared statistics regarding cases in congregate settings in the county. As of Nov. 22, the county’s prisons were at 1.4 cases per 1,000 population; long-term healthcare facilities were at 5.3 cases per 1,000 population; and schools were at 14.2 cases per 1,000 population. (These numbers are adjusted for exposure time.)
Cook also noted that in recent case interviews his staff conducted, 20 percent of people stated they had attended social gatherings in the preceding two weeks while 47 percent stated they had been exposed to a Madison County school student in the same period. While this data is not conclusive, Cook said that it is evidence that schools have an impact on COVID-19 numbers.
He said he agrees that the best place for children to learn is in the classroom, but that the county is at a point with its virus spread that schools must close.
The school closures apply to both public and private schools in the county.
School buildings may remain open to staff at the discretion of school leadership.
Sports and school activities
The health board’s suspension of sports applies to school sports, club sports and travel sports. School activities are included in the suspension.
Cook said the county has experienced several instances of virus spread and quarantines among sports team. At the time of the board’s special meeting, three entire sports teams were in quarantine.
With winter sports taking place inside, the setting is different than with summer and fall sports that primarily take place outside and, therefore, allow more opportunity for distancing, Cook said.
Events and gatherings
Per the health orders, no community festivals, events or gatherings are permitted between Nov. 30 and Jan. 1. The many Christmas and winter-themed events that take place annually around the county will not happen this year.
Cook said this order aligns with the Ohio Department of Health’s reissue of an order earlier this month that prohibits public and private gatherings of more than 10 people.
Timeline and enforcement
Whether some forms of in-person learning, sports and events are reinstated after Jan. 1 depends on how things go over the next several weeks. The health department will reevaluate the situation on Dec. 21, Cook said.
“My hope is this is temporary,” he said of the shutdowns and suspensions.
As for enforcement of the health orders, Nick Adkins, Madison County assistant prosecuting attorney, said the county will notify any entity that violates the orders. If that entity does not comply, the county can file an injunction with the county common pleas court, asking the court to require compliance. Daily fines could be assessed for non-compliance, he said.
Adkins confirmed that the Ohio Revised Code gives public health boards the authority to order school closures and suspension of activities such as sports and public gatherings.
The health board unanimously approved the health orders. Casting votes were Teresa Ames, president, Robin Kimbler, Ruth Roddy and Julie Harris. Dr. Katherine Binns, also a member of the board, did not attend the meeting due to a high volume of patients at her family medical practice. In an email to Cook, Binns said the orders were “exactly the right call.”
In addition to the directives pertaining to schools, sports and events, the health department issued the following advisories:
- Businesses and government offices are strongly advised to allow staff to work from home and implement teleworking and video conferencing policies where practical.
- Churches and houses of worship are strongly advised not to meet in person and to use online or drive-in options.
- It is strongly advised that community, governmental, social and similar organizational meetings are held virtually.
- Residents are strongly advised not to gather with people outside their own household.
“We continue to call on our residents to do their part,” Cook said. “I’m hopeful people will make good decisions, especially over the holidays.”