The Athens City-County Health Department located at 278 W Union St. in Athens, Ohio.

The Athens City-County Health Department located at 278 W Union St. in Athens, Ohio.

Taking a Toll

December 2, 2021

Athens County experiences influx of COVID-19 deaths

By Alex Imwalle | For The Post

Following a spike of COVID-19 cases in Athens County in September, the county has experienced an influx of COVID-19 related deaths.

According to a previous Post report, as of Nov. 30, the county has had 96 total deaths of people with COVID-19. According to the same report, 50.56% of people in Athens County have had at least one dose of the vaccine and 46.48% have been fully vaccinated.

James Gaskell, commissioner of the Athens City-County Health Department, or ACCHD, said September yielded Athens’ highest COVID-19 case rates yet due to the increased spread of the Delta variant, reaching 1,429 infections. Gaskell said the peak was then followed by an increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 in late October, but the trend has since decreased.

“It’s not unexpected to have deaths about six weeks after a major surge,” Gaskell said.

Gaskell said nearly all the individuals who were hospitalized or died due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated. Though he acknowledged fully vaccinated individuals can be hospitalized and die, they are by and large much more protected than unvaccinated people.

Fortunately, Gaskell said the vaccination rate in Athens County continues to grow with efforts from the ACCHD. Gaskell said the health department has held multiple mass vaccination clinics and has traveled to multiple elementary schools to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11 with doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Despite the mask mandate in the city, Gaskell said the county is unable to enforce such precautions. Consequently, Gaskell pointed out that a majority of the hospitalizations and deaths from Athens County have come from outside the city in more rural areas.

Even though Athens County has experienced a considerable increase in cases and hospitalizations, Gaskell said Athens has fewer cases than a majority of the neighboring counties.

“That goes to show what vaccine mandates will do,” Gaskell said. “(OU has) a high vaccination rate and a really low infection rate.”

Gillian Ice, special assistant to the president for public health operations, said the OU vaccination rate is just under 90% for students on campus, and the vaccination rate is a factor in the difference between the infection trends of the university and the county.

“The state in general is increasing,” Ice said. “Central Ohio is starting to see some concerning trends with hospitalizations; we haven’t seen a whole lot of that here yet.”

Ice also attributed the university's enforcement of COVID-19 testing, rapid isolation and contact tracing performed on campus to the relatively low number of cases. Ice said the university is watching closely for any spike in infections after the holidays.

Nivedita Chawda, a freshman studying studio art, said seeing the frequent COVID-19 related deaths can be scary as someone living in the county, as the threat of increasing cases looms over the campus. Chawda said she wishes the county would work more closely with OU to minimize the effect of COVID-19.

“I’m really happy with the vaccine mandate and the mask mandate,” Chawda said. “I think it would be much better if the county also works together with the university on this.”

Gaskell said many people in Athens are approaching eligibility for the booster shot. With the booster comes an expectation of lower infections, hospitalizations and deaths, he added. Along with the booster shots, Gaskell said he also hopes to continue to vaccinate individuals who have yet to receive their first dose.

“The way out of this pandemic is through vaccination,” Gaskell said. “The vaccines are safe and highly effective … they do prevent hospitalization and death.”

AUTHOR: Alex Imwalle
EDITOR: Emma Skidmore and Ryan Maxin
COPY EDITOR: Anna Garnai
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Anastasia Carter