Julie Miller

Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller addresses the community during a Facebook Live press briefing on March 17, 2020.

MOUNT VERNON — When it comes to COVID-19 case numbers in north central Ohio, Knox County is an anomaly.

As of Friday afternoon, Knox County had just 38 confirmed cases, nine hospitalizations and one death due to the novel coronavirus, according to the Ohio Department of Health. These numbers pale in comparison to its surrounding counties, which have seen anywhere from 45 positive cases in Ashland County to 458 in Delaware County. Licking County, with 358 cases, has had as many newly reported cases in the past two weeks (38) as Knox County has had since the pandemic began.

But Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller believes “community spread” – the term used to define cases for which the source of infection is unknown – still exists in Knox County. She said this week’s community testing results prove it.

Two of the five individuals who tested positive at Knox Public Health’s drive-thru site in Centerburg on Monday were from Danville – both females, ages 22 and 34. They are unrelated, public information officer Pam Palm said, and their infections have been attributed to community spread.

“[They] are evidence that the virus is still in our area,” Palm said.

In addition, Knox Public Health received notice Friday that two more county residents – a 50-year-old female from Gambier and a 28-year-old male from Centerburg – had tested positive after being infected through what is believed to be community spread. Knox County's last five confirmed cases (and nine of the 38 total) have been attributed to this cause.

Knox County COVID-19 testing

A Knox Public Health nurse administers a drive-thru COVID-19 swab test at Centerburg High School on Monday, June 22, 2020.

According to Knox Public Health, 33 of Knox County’s 38 confirmed cases have recovered. Four cases are active (19 individuals are being monitored in connection to those cases), and one individual has died. As of Friday, 1,471 tests had been administered in Knox County.

The novel coronavirus has touched all corners of the county so far. Mount Vernon has seen 14 cases, followed by Centerburg (8), Danville (6), Fredericktown (4), Howard (2), Gambier (1), Frazeysburg (1), Utica (1) and Butler (1). The county’s age range is 2-90 years old. Twenty-one males and 17 females have tested positive.

Monday’s community testing event in Centerburg yielded similar results to the health department’s first drive-thru in Mount Vernon on June 3-5. Of the 175 tests administered Monday, just five came back positive (three were from out-of-county). Likewise, just two of the 176 tests administered in Mount Vernon earlier this month returned as confirmed.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Miller said of Monday’s results. “It wouldn’t have surprised me if we had 20, and it doesn’t surprise me that we had two.”

Miller was equally unsurprised by the results of the first community testing session. Knox County had the 18th-lowest case count in the state at the time (it now ranks 17th), as well as the lowest case total in the 11-county Columbus metropolitan region (it still does).

Miller has attributed this to the county's proactive approach in handling the pandemic. She believes local businesses and individuals did their part to stem the spread early by shutting down and social distancing. The health department’s COVID-19 call line kept countless potentially infected individuals home, Miller noted, instead of going to the hospital or doctor’s office for clinical advice.

“We’ve been fortunate to have low numbers," Miller said earlier this month. "Our fatalities, hospitalizations, and overall numbers are low."

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Still, she believes the war is not yet won. Ohio has seen a surge in new cases this week, with 987 reported Friday – the biggest single-day increase since April. The number of new cases reported statewide has steadily increased over the past week, with the current seven-day average 45 percent higher than last week’s. Ohio is one of 26 states to see an increase in cases over the past week.

State health officials have indicated that this increase is only partially due to the increase in testing. Dr. Richard P. Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health (Cincinnati), noted during Gov. Mike DeWine’s press briefing Thursday that a larger number of young adults are testing positive for the virus. He added that recent outbreaks in southwest Ohio have shown an increase in community spread.

“This is really indicative that the increased number of cases we’re seeing is not just because we’re doing more tests,” Lofgren said. “It really does, in fact, indicate that there is more disease, more disease that’s spreading in our community.”

Miller said Knox County is seeing similar trends at the local level. Local residents have returned from weddings, graduation parties and out-of-state gatherings in recent weeks and have tested positive, she said. This continued behavior will cause Knox County’s numbers to rise, and will put more individuals at risk of infection.

“There is travel, there are mass gatherings now, I think we’re just going to see more community spread,” Miller said. “It doesn’t surprise me that the state numbers are up. It won’t surprise me if our numbers go up because of those things.”

From what she’s seen, Miller does not believe enough people in Knox County are wearing masks, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I can’t say on one hand that I blame individuals for thinking, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal here.’ We don’t have high numbers like our neighbors,” Miller reasoned.

“But on the other hand, we still have a spread, we still are getting more positive cases, as we’ve proven in the last couple days. And so there’s people out there that are positive, spreading the virus. And you don’t know when you’re going to come into contact [with an infected individual], because we don’t know who [is infected]."

Miller urged the public to wear masks and do “all the other things we’ve been trying to teach people for four months,” including practicing social distancing and hand hygiene, avoiding large gatherings, and disinfecting commonly used surfaces. Health officials believe these practices will help limit the spread of the virus, which still has no vaccine and has killed 2,788 Ohioans to date.

"I can’t say it enough: this virus is spread through droplets – through our talking, singing, speaking, yelling, whatever it is we’re doing. And it lands on surfaces…" Miller said. "So I just can’t say enough about masks, and it’s the hardest thing for people to commit to."

Knox Public Health will host its next drive-thru community testing event on Monday at the Community Health Center in Danville (16 E. Main St.). Testing will be conducted in the parking lot behind the Health Center from 1-3 p.m., and it will be by-appointment only.

Palm predicted Knox Public Health would be able to test 50 individuals in the two-hour window. Anyone 18 years or older, with or without symptoms, is eligible to receive a nasal swab test. The testing is free, whether or not a participant has medical insurance.

Those wishing to schedule an appointment for Monday’s drive-thru clinic are encouraged to call the health department's COVID-19 call line at 740-399-8014.

COVID-19 testing continues to be available Monday-Friday as well through Knox Public Health and the Community Health Center at its Mount Vernon location, 11660 Upper Gilchrist Rd. Those interested in receiving a test must call 740-399-8014 to schedule an appointment.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.