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Jefferson County sees slowdown in virus cases

STEUBENVILLE — With just one new case of COVID-19 in recent days, Jefferson County Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos figures the community has turned a corner.

“We went several days without any new cases,” she said, “and we only have seven active cases right now. That’s really a milestone of sorts, compared to a lot of surrounding counties.”

To date, Jefferson County has had 67 confirmed coronavirus cases, 58 of them recovered. Two deaths have been reported.

By contrast, Columbiana County has had 889 confirmed cases and 52 deaths and Belmont County, 439 confirmed cases and 14 deaths.

Balakos credits the difference to “fabulous cooperation within the county.”

“I’ve said it a hundred different times: You can’t understate the value of the cooperation we’ve had in the county, the coalition of people (working together),” she said. “Look at other counties and what we could have here, but we only have seven active cases at this point.”

She said county officials began preparing for the virus in February. The county emergency management agency ordered personal protective equipment early on, with the blessing of the county commissioners.

“Most surrounding counties did not do that,” Balakos said. “Our nursing homes, law enforcement and ambulance personnel … none of our people ran short of PPE, so nobody had to wear masks that were falling apart or answer calls without gloves. They weren’t wearing the same masks for two weeks because the county invested the money to provide safe working conditions for people.”

She also applauded Trinity Health System for its efforts, saying its medical staff had been instrumental in efforts to contain the disease. When they needed to do mass testing at a nursing home, for instance, “we got the tests and the lab at Trinity came in and performed the tests for us so we had adequate samples,” Balakos said, pointing out, “We haven’t had the outbreaks in nursing homes like other places have had. We have a jail here, we have a prison. … They’ve been untouched.”

Balakos said the “attention to detail, the level of education we’ve been able to do” were crucial, noting city and township leaders, law enforcement and Department of Health employees had also been actively involved in planning and implementing containment strategies.

“Our director of nursing, Hannah Piko, has been involved in all the case surveillance,” Balakos added. “She led the contract tracing team and made sure that we did not delay in starting any of our contact tracing efforts. The ability to contact people who have been exposed and quickly alert them was a critical part of our success in not spreading COVID-19.”

She said department personnel had “pitched in to work on COVID-19 these past several months” and the board of health and the employees had been “actively involved in our work plans and vital to our efforts.”

“This is one of those times when Jefferson County got it right,” Balakos added. “It was everything put together, a coalition of effort … there’s nothing we needed as a county that everybody didn’t work together to (achieve).”

Balakos said it’s time for county residents to “take what we learned … wearing masks, washing hands … so we can keep those numbers where we need them to be.”

Exposure, she points out, “is about time and proximity.”

“Walking past someone (in a grocery store) isn’t the same as (rubbing elbows) with them for 30 minutes or an hour somewhere else,” she said. “It’s when you’re sitting in an office with the same person for 30 minutes or an hour, or you’re in an exam room with somebody for 30 minutes with the door closed … those are circumstances that put you at risk.”

“Keeping your face covered, washing your hands — mitigate the risks,” Balakos said. “If we do those things, we can get back to socialization, we can get back to doing things we want to do. We can do it because we’ve flattened the curve in Jefferson County.”

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