When public health experts sounded the alarm on coronavirus, Gov. Mike DeWine listened and started to move aggressively, even before Ohio had its first confirmed case.
Well before other governors or big city mayors, DeWine asked colleges and universities to suspend in-person classes, closed K-12 schools, shut down bars and restaurants to dine-in customers and put a limit on mass gatherings.
Other states soon followed Ohio’s example.
DeWine, 73, has spent five decades in public offices and has made decisions and directed the state to take action often two or three steps ahead of the rest of the country.
There are two reasons why. No. 1, his focus has long been on health and safety of families and children, which made a looming pandemic something he was inclined early to focus on and attempt to address. No. 2, he is being given significant credit for taking counsel from Dr. Amy Acton, whom he appointed in February, 2019, to lead the 1,100-employee Ohio Department of Health.
“I think it’s because of Amy. I think he’s the type of leader — and I related to this — you hire really good people and you trust them,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat. She added, “That still takes leadership, it’s still really hard. You come out on Sunday night and close all the bars, that’s really hard.”
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“Clearly our governor has been in the vanguard of state leaders across the U.S. on this issue,” said Greg Robinson, a Republican running for Ohio Senate. “Gov. DeWine has had a long career in public service, and one defining quality of good public servants is their ability to listen to others and take advice. He appears to be doing just that, for the benefit of Ohioans.”
Meryl Justin Chertoff, director of the Georgetown Project on State & Local Government Policy and Law, said Dr. Acton is Ohio’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infetious Diseases.
He added: “Gov. DeWine himself is handling this extremely well. Besides relying on expert advice, he is using facts to make his case, he is not politicizing the crisis, and he is reaching across the aisle. As a former U.S. Senator, he also understands the limits of what federal government can do in an emergency like this, and how important it is for governors to step up.”
Each day, DeWine, Acton, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and a constellation of guests have held press briefings at the Ohio Statehouse. They have often unloaded bombshells of news: closing schools, shutting bars, banning mass gatherings. The briefings are in-depth — often lasting 90 minutes — so that they can explain their rationale, the ever-evolving facts, and pandemic control methods. And the speakers repeatedly express empathy and understanding that many of their decisions will be brutal on Ohio families and the economy.
The briefings are carried live on public radio and TV stations as well as live-streamed on OhioChannel.org. The briefings have racked up more than 125,000 views on OhioChannel alone. C-SPAN, the national broadcaster that typically focuses on the federal government, asked to start carrying them live.
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Whaley said DeWine has a clear understanding of what levers in government he can pull to blunt the impact of the pandemic in Ohio. She praised him for using his authority. “The one place where it got really messy is where he didn’t have authority. And that was the election.”
Up until March 16, DeWine, Acton and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose urged voters to cast their ballots absentee or in-person on March 17. LaRose made a plea for new poll workers to step up, expecting that many of the 35,000 workers — often people in their 60s, 70s and 80s — would drop out. Boards of Elections dispatched kits with latex finger covers, gloves, alcohol wipes and other supplies to polling place managers to disinfect voting equipment.
But advice from the Centers for Disease Control shifted, suggesting the mass gathering threshold drop to 50.
Less than 24 hours before the polls were to open LaRose and DeWine pivoted, recommending that in-person voting be suspended until June 2 and absentee by mail voting be continued until then. They said in the press conference in which they announced their recommendations that they didn’t have the authority to change the primary date. But when a lawsuit was hastily filed to request an injunction on in-person voting, a Franklin County judge later that night rejected it. That led Acton to use Ohio public heath law to issue an order to shut down the state’s 3,650 polling locations.
The abrupt shutdown triggered a slew of lawsuits and protests. The Ohio Democratic Party filed suit in the Ohio Supreme Court against LaRose, who issued a directive setting June 2 as the new primary date. Voting rights groups are demanding that the registration deadline be extended. And legislators are expected to meet this week to determine the next steps on the primary election.
DeWine’s actions are being contrasted by national commentators with some of the statements by President Trump in the early stages of the outbreak. In early March, President Trump downplayed the seriousness of the virus at the same time DeWine and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther ordered that the popular Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus be closed to spectators.
Acton has said that on the front end of a pandemic, public health experts look like alarmists and on the back end they’re criticized for not doing enough.
Acton, a former assistant professor of public health at Ohio State University, strikes a balance between medical expert and relatable friend as she breaks down the pandemic curve, the coming surge of cases, the push to collect all available personal protective equipment. She offers a dose of hope at every briefing, assuring Ohioans that we’ll get through this together.
Husted, the former Dayton Chamber of Commerce executive, has been calling banks and credit unions and other business leaders, assuring Ohioans that the food supply chain is strong, and working to shore up the unemployment compensation system. He also urged employers to send home sick workers and step up disinfection efforts.
“This can be done right and employers need to own this and take the responsibility for it so that we don’t have to take further actions. If people act responsibly, if employers act responsibly and their employees follow that guidance, we will get through this healthier and more economically sound,” Husted said at a recent briefing.
Still, the decisions to close businesses and restrict gatherings isn’t supported by all.
“I don’t have access to all the same health information that all the government officials do but it does seem to me that we need to balance the other risks to people’s lives, such as shutting down the economy, causing people to lose their jobs and their health care, not be able to maintain their housing or feed their children, all of which will endanger people’s lives,” said Democrat Richard Cordray, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to DeWine.
OSU College of Public Health Dean Amy Fairchild said DeWine is trusting the advice from medical, scientific and public health experts.
“He’s embracing the science. He is listening to somebody who is telling him hard truths in the face of uncertainty, who is helping him navigate the situation and helping him react every single day,” she said. Fairchild described Acton as someone who has the communication skills and “intellectual and scientific punch” to direct the Ohio Department of Health.
DeWine praised Acton for her background — a medical degree with residencies in preventative medicine and pediatrics as well as a masters in public health — and her ability to explain complex public health issues in plain language.
DeWine said this week that he believes an outcome of this pandemic will be a renewed emphasis on public health.
“I’ve felt for a long time that we have not paid enough attention to public health. When I look at the problems that we face in Ohio, so many of the challenges that we face have to do with health issues. So I think it’s going to make us look really hard at that,” he said.
He also predicts that there will be a national assessment on what America needs to be able to produce without relying on other countries, including medical gear and personal protective equipment.
Acton predicted that the pandemic will bring a baby boom beginning nine months from now and longer term, the country will see a decrease in common infectious diseases as protocols are improved.
“Public health is so vitally important. We go through these cycles through history with this field. I’ve always talked about how the fact that we live 30 years longer…almost two-thirds of that came from this vast field we call public health and it’s an evolving field. The epidemics we face today are things like suicide and opiate addiction,” Acton said.
The field is evolving and shows how everyone is interconnected.
“We have to face the fact that human and economic development are inextricably linked. They just are. When we doing the kind of policy making that we are doing now, it’s like every single thing is inter-related. That is a profound thing,” she said.
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