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Forum held to answer COVID-19 questions

QUESTIONS ANSWERED — Brenan Pergi, chairman of the Franciscan University of Steubenville Coronavirus Task Force, answers questions about the virus’ impact on colleges and universities as Steubenville City Manager Jim Mavromatis and Jefferson County Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos listen. -- Warren Scott

STEUBENVILLE — In an effort to better inform the public about the COVID-19 coronavirus, leaders of the Jefferson County General Health District brought together several local officials to answer questions about it at a forum held Wednesday at the Prime Time Office on Aging.

Because public officials have discouraged gatherings of 10 or more people, the community was encouraged to submit their questions through e-mail or social media, and the event was livestreamed so it could be viewed at home.

County Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos noted the virus is relatively new and many in the medical and public health fields are working to learn more about it.

While that happens, steps are being taken to deter it from spreading.

Balakos noted through its website at https://coronavirus.ohio.gov, the Ohio Department of Health has confirmed 704 cases in the state, not counting a Jefferson County woman confirmed by her department on Wednesday; 182 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

She and others on the panel noted the virus isn’t deadly for everyone, but everyone can reduce the number of fatalities by avoiding close contact with others.

“Treat everyone, including yourself, as if they could be infected,” Balakos advised.

Dr. Mark Kissinger, the health district’s medical director, and others said everyone can reduce spread of the virus by cleaning commonly used surfaces with disinfectants, washing their hands thoroughly with soap and using hand sanitizer. Kissinger said antibacterial soap is effective against bacteria but not the virus.

Asked about risk factors for severe cases of the virus, Dr. John Figel, Trinity Health System’s chief medical officer, said older adults and people with chronic health conditions, such as heart and lung disease, and compromised immune systems, are most at risk.

But he and Dr. Kenneth Woods, an infectious disease specialist with Trinity, said there seems to be a rise in the number of younger adults who have been hospitalized.

Asked about its symptoms, Woods said they are similar to the flu, which “is playing against us now,” but some patients also have experienced nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; abdominal pain from vomiting and chest pain from coughing.

Asked about precautions at the hospital, Figel said before the virus, staff there were trained to treat every patient as though they have a communicable disease but if a patient tests positive for the coronavirus, staff will treat them in personal protective equipment.

He said the temperatures of hospital staff are being taken when they arrive, and nonclinical staff are permitted to work at home when possible.

Balakos was asked when a local person tests positive, if the health department will release information about that person’s city, workplace and church.

She said, “In a small area such as ours, that becomes identifying information and that’s not something we would want to do to that person.”

Balakos noted figures for each county are posted at coronavirus.ohio.gov on a daily basis.

She said when a positive case is reported, the patient is interviewed to determine her contact with others.

Asked about local residents who are tested out of state, Dr. Mark Kissinger, medical director for the health district, said a positive test will be reported to the health department of the patient’s home county.

Asked about the virus’ impact on city services, Steubenville City Manager Jim Mavromatis said city offices have been closed to the public, though residents can make an appointment for essential business.

But he said city services, including police and fire, continue.

Asked whether utility payments for residents on leave from work will be deferred, Mavromatis said that’s not been determined.

He encouraged those with difficulty making the payments to contact the city about it.

Balakos noted the police and fire stations have been closed to the public and steps are being taken to ensure they are extra clean.

Rob Herrington, the county’s emergency management director, was asked about the supply of personal protective equipment for first responders and health care workers.

He said, “It’s not what we want it to be yet, but it’s an evolving situation every day.”

Herrington said to protect themselves and reduce spread of the virus, first responders will be advised if dispatched to the home of a person who has tested positive.

Asked if the current school year will resume, Chuck Kokiko, superintendent of the Jefferson County Educational Service Center, said, “As the cases in Ohio increase, it probably becomes less likely.”

Kokiko said school administrators and staff are preparing for that possibility.

He said school staff had only a few days to prepare for the three-week closing ordered by Gov. Mike DeWine.

He said secondary schools have adapted better because online curriculum had been a larger part of their curriculum, but elementary teachers are working to reach their pupils during the hiatus.

Asked how long the Stay at Home Order will be in place, Balakos said, “That’s a million dollar question. We don’t know.”

“It’s really going to depend on the actions of all of us,” she added, saying, “It will help if we don’t think of them as restrictions but as things we’re doing for our families and for others.”

Balakos said people might need to turn from news reports for a while and take a walk outside.

“This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint,” she said, adding, “This is something we’re going to do together and we’re going to get through it,” she said.

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