As the omicron variant of COVID-19 fuels explosive growth in cases at the state level, Athens County is beginning to see the effects.

The county’s case numbers and positivity rate are on the rise, with a local outbreak prompting the closure of the Nelsonville city building.

Increasing numbers

Athens County continues to report among the fewest cases per capita in the state, according to data provided by the State of Ohio. However, numbers are on the rise.

Over the past two weeks, Athens County has reported 384 new COVID-19 cases, with 154 reported in the first three days of 2022, according to state data.

Of the 384 cases reported in the past two weeks, 184 were reported in the 45701 zip code, where Ohio University and the City of Athens are located. This is followed by the 45764 zip code, where Nelsonville is located, at 46 cases, and the 45780 zip code, where The Plains is located, at 39 cases.

The test positivity rate in the county has been on the rise as well.

For the 14 day period ending Dec. 20, the test positivity rate in Athens County was 7.8%, according to state data.

Athens City-County Health Department Health Commissioner and Medical Director Dr. James Gaskell said the positivity rate has been rising steadily since then — from 10% on Dec. 26 to 13% on Dec. 30 and 15% on Jan. 2.

“When we test people, more and more of them are positive, and that’s omicron,” Gaskell said.

A post on the health department Facebook page advises that tests are currently limited in the county and to expect longer wait times for testing. The post further advises to stay home when sick.

As of 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 3, all the county’s libraries were out of free rapid tests, according to a widget available on the library website.

Meanwhile, on the morning of Jan. 3, the health department reported a particularly high volume of phone calls, which Gaskell said was driven by questions related to the CDC’s isolation and quarantine guidelines, as well as an increase in positive cases and exposures.

In contrast with newly reported cases across the state as a whole — which are well above previous peak levels and continuing to increase — the number of COVID cases now being reported in Athens County remains well below the previous peak in September.

Test positivity levels in the county are well below state levels too, with the seven day average test positivity rate in the state as a whole at 30.8% as of Jan. 1, according to state data.

Hospitalization and death

The county has now reported a total of 104 deaths, with two new deaths reported on Dec. 31.

Gaskell said hospitalizations in the county, meanwhile, are at high levels, with 9 patients admitted with COVID-19 over the past week. However, Gaskell added that hospitalization numbers are not yet threatening hospital capacity.

“We still have hospital capacity, and we still have capacity in our ICU,” Gaskell said. “But the hospital’s busy and we’re concerned that if we get a flood of patients over the next couple weeks, it could challenge our capacity.”

Gaskell added that patients in Athens County can be sent to other hospitals in the OhioHealth system should O’Bleness Hospital reach capacity in the coming weeks.

At the state level, hospitalizations from COVID-19 are at record highs, with more than 6,100 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Monday according to state data.

However, Gaskell said the news at the state level is not all bad.

“Of those people in the hospital, there’s a smaller percentage in the ICU and fewer on ventilators, which suggests that maybe this omicron variant is more contagious but not as virulent,” Gaskell said. “In other words, maybe not as many people will die as with the delta variant.”

City hall outbreak

The City of Nelsonville on Monday reported an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at city hall and closed the city building and complex for the week, according to a release from the city. The city plans to reopen the city building on Monday, Jan. 10 for normal business hours.

“We have several positive cases as well as suspected positives,” said Nelsonville City Auditor Taylor Sappington. “We were concerned and wanted to be proactive about any potential further spread to the employees, who deserve a safe workplace, as well as residents, who come in quite frequently.”

Sappington said after two of his employees tested positive, he approached City Manager Scott Frank about closing the city hall to the public and changing operations.

In addition to closing to the public, Sappington said the city building is operating with a “skeleton crew,” with others working from home. The city also completed a “deep disinfection” of the building, Sappington said.

“We decided it was the right move not only for the employees, but for the public and the healthcare system that, down here, is quite burdened,” Sappington said.

Sappington said there will be no disruption to city services.

The city’s press release states that the city is accepting payments at drop boxes, by mail and online.

The release encouraged residents to “take reasonable steps to avoid, postpone or cancel large non-essential events and socially distance ourselves in public,” while practicing “patience, understanding, and empathy, for there is no one unaffected by these disruptions.”

The release further encourages residents to practice good hygiene and get COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots, as well as flu shots, to avoid taxing the healthcare system.

Sappington said most of the staff at the city building is vaccinated.

“I can’t say it’s universal, but it’s close,” Sappington said, noting that booster shots are also ubiquitous.

Sappington said the ubiquity of vaccinations and booster shots among city employees makes him feel “pretty good” about the likelihood that no city employees come down with severe illness.

Gaskell said he wasn’t shocked to learn about the outbreak at the Nelsonville city building.

“I’m not surprised that you might get outbreaks like that, because [the omicron variant] is so contagious,” Gaskell said.

Outlook

Gaskell said he is concerned by signs that cases in the county are on the rise, as well as trends across the state.

However, he said Athens County’s low population density and rate of vaccinations and booster shots could help prevent the situation in the county from approaching that seen in other parts of the state.

Gaskell said that among individuals over 50 in Athens County, 58.4% are vaccinated and boosted.

“I just encourage people to get vaccinated — that’s a way to save their lives and keep them out of the hospital,” Gaskell said. “Right now, the vaccine is holding up. The vaccine is preventing individuals from getting seriously ill and getting hospitalized and dying.”

Vaccinations and boosters may be scheduled online at https://gettheshot.coronavirus.ohio.gov/.

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