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COVID-19 is on the rise again in Ohio, and an expert blames young people who aren't wearing masks

"We have to get the message out that this is not over and it’s not going to be over for a while," Dr. Stephen Blatt said.
Syndication: Cincinnati
People use a hand sanitizing station in Kings Island for Orion Media Day in Mason, Ohio on July 1, 2020. Kings Island re-opened today under very strict and stringent procedures throughout the park to reduce the spread of coronavirus.Grace Pritchett / The Enquirer via Imagn

So much for Ohio flattening the coronavirus curve.

Gov. Mike DeWine moved aggressively to slow the spread of the virus by shutting down the economy and issuing stay-at-home orders, but COVID-19 numbers have been climbing again after DeWine started reopening the state.

There have been 9,779 new cases just in the last two weeks, a 73 percent jump over the number for the two weeks before, according to the latest NBC News tally. And on Tuesday, there were 13 more deaths reported and 1,076 new cases.

In total, 2,876 people have died from the coronavirus in Ohio out of 52,865 reported cases since the start of the pandemic, the NBC News figures show.

"People are letting their guard down," DeWine said Thursday. "The progress the state has made is in danger of being reversed."

"We're in a crisis stage in Ohio and this can go one way or the other," the governor added.

Dr. Stephen Blatt, medical director for Infectious Disease at TriHealth Hospitals in Cincinnati, agreed and noted that young people are increasingly the ones getting infected.

“I don’t think we reopened too soon, our numbers were very good,” Blatt told NBC News. “The problem is that people are not wearing masks. You go out and everywhere you look they’re not wearing masks.”

Ohio is hardly the only state that has seen a big jump in numbers. Arizona, Florida and Texas in particular have reported an explosion of new cases. And nationally, there have been more than 2.7 million reported cases and nearly 130,000 deaths, the latest NBC News figures show.

In other developments:

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suddenly changed course and issued an order requiring faces masks be worn in public in any county with 20 or more coronavirus cases.
  • The U.S. economy clawed back 4.8 million of the 22 million-plus jobs that were lost when the pandemic started while the unemployment rate fell to 11.1 percent. President Donald Trump touted the June numbers but experts warned a huge jobs deficit remains and the latest coronavirus surge could mean more pain on the horizon.
  • It was full steam ahead for the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, complete with massive fireworks display. But despite the health concerns of Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, participants will not be required to wear the 300,000 of so face masks that will be made available to those who want them.

DeWine received bipartisan praise for moving decisively to secure his state well before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13. Both he and Dr. Amy Acton, the state’s former health director, were lionized for leading the state through the crisis.

While Gov. Tom Wolf in neighboring Pennsylvania has issued a mandate which requires people to don a mask whenever they leave their homes, DeWine said "that's not our intent."

But during a news conference to announce guidelines for reopening Ohio's schools in the fall, DeWine said "I’m not ruling out additional orders."

"Remember, we wear masks to protect each other, often because people are sick, but show no symptoms," the governor said. "Masks can be especially useful and are strongly recommended at any grade level during periods of increased risk and when physical distancing is difficult."

While DeWine is a Republican, it’s not clear a mask-wearing directive would fly in a state where the GOP holds a majority in the legislature and in which conservative lawmakers resisted the governor’s moves to curb coronavirus by closing down the state.

Ohio State Rep. Tavia Galonski, a Democrat, said she wishes DeWine would try.

“Sure, there would be people who would complain, but those same people had an Ohio that we all could be proud of before DeWine turned tail and ran,” Galonski told NBC News. “I believe Ohioans would have responded quite well to an authoritative figure they could trust telling them to put on a mask.”

Blatt said he knows masks will be a hard sell with some in Ohio.

“I’m sure the governor is wrestling with that,” he said. “If there was some way to mandating mask use, that would be helpful.”

Acton stepped down in June after Ohio Republicans tried to curb her powers and protesters besieged her home demanding an end to the state’s stay-at-home measures. The governor said Acton would continue serving as his chief health adviser.

Not long after, the number of coronavirus cases began rising again in Ohio.

Asked whether there could be a connection between Acton’s departure and the increased cases, Blatt said no. “She was a calming influence,” the doctor said of Acton.

Ohio appeared to be on a different trajectory on May 1 when DeWine began lifting the state’s stay-at-home rules and a month later the numbers continued to be flat.

"We're not seeing any significant increase or reestablishment of a wave or a peak in Ohio and that’s great," Mark Cameron, an infectious disease researcher and professor in the school of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, told the Cincinnati Enquirer in a story published June 16. "What that could mean is that people are still generally following the guidelines."

That’s clearly no longer the case, said Blatt.

“Most of the new cases are young people and I think they just got sick of not going out and seeing their friends,” Blatt said. “I think they saw that things were getting better and just said, ‘OK, let’s go out.’ We have to get the message out that this is not over and it’s not going to be over for a while.”

The drive to get people to wear masks has, of late, been driven by Republicans like the Texas governor who had previously been following the lead of Trump, who has rarely worn one in public.

Trump, in an interview Wednesday, said he’s “all for masks” but does not think they should be mandatory for people in public places. Pence echoed that Thursday, saying "I don't think there's a need for a national mandate."

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican and a Trump ally, used similar language Thursday in a Fox News interview.

“Look, you should wear a mask, you should social distance,” Scott said. “But should governments mandate these things? No.”

But Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has been criticized for responding too slowly to the crisis and for reopening too soon, reported 6,563 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and 145 deaths, according to the NBC News tally.

There have been 76,278 new cases reported in Florida in the last two weeks alone, according to NBC News figures, forcing DeSantis to shut down the bars to slow the spread of the virus.