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The Athens City-County Health Department on West Union St.

Q&A: Local health commissioner James Gaskell discusses Spring Semester, working with OU on COVID-19

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted on Nov. 12. For updated COVID-19 numbers, visit the Ohio Department of Health website

As coronavirus cases continue to rise throughout the state of Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine instituted a statewide curfew and Ohio University professors have expressed their concerns about the upcoming Spring Semester. 

The Athens City-County Health Department has been working alongside OU during the pandemic to release data on COVID-19 cases and provide information about the virus. 

The Post sat down with the department’s health commissioner, James Gaskell, to discuss the future trajectory of the pandemic and the department’s communication with OU.

The Post: As of right now, how many active coronavirus cases are in Athens? 

Gaskell: Right now, there are 287 active cases. So far in Athens County, we have had 1,547 cases, 1,256 have recovered ... We had four deaths in Athens County. 

The Post: Can you describe to me how the communication has been like with the university? 

Gaskell: Well, actually, over the past several months, we have a sort of formal conversation every Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock, which lasts maybe an hour, depending on what we’re talking about, maybe an hour and a half. Sometimes we communicate with them frequently during the week. For instance, I had a call last night with somebody from the university, and certainly I talked to the president on a number of occasions about activities at the university and how many students are coming back, etc.  Dr. Gillian Ice talks to us frequently. She talks to our administrator, Jack Pepper, frequently and with me ... We have a really good working relationship with the university and we trust the people at the university. 

The Post: Speaking about the university, has there ever been a conflict of interest between the health department and the university wanting to keep the county as safe as possible? 

Gaskell: Well, we have informed them that we’re concerned about the number of students that come back, and we have had conversations about that, because indeed, the more students there are at the university, the more likely we are to have infection. They’re very aware of our concerns. But they also have additional pressures that we understand: the pressures to survive this pandemic economically. And so, it’s a balancing act: what can you do safely and how can you make it safe? So, the university has some very good plans, and actually, when the students first came back for this term, we had certainly a lot of infection. We were getting about 30 students a day. But that’s come down. The students have learned to adapt and frequent testing has been helpful. We have identified students and we’ve been able to implement isolation of those students who were infected and then quarantine the students who were in contact with them. So, I think that’s been helpful. There’s been success. That’s infection now. So, we’re concerned about more students coming in January. We’ve talked about that, and they have additional plans. They’re going to test all the students before they come back and there’s going to be more testing that occurs on campus as a result of students coming back. Many of the students we tested once a week, and I think they’re going to try to test everybody before they come back to decrease the instance of infection. So there’s going to be a lot of testing — more testing than now. The numbers are going to increase considerably and we have great concern about that, and the university does too. 

The Post: Have you made models of any possible increase of cases when students come back in January? 

Gaskell: Well, no. There are some data that suggests what that infection rate might look like, but, what determines in part what the infection rate looks like is what you do to mitigate it. In other words, how good are people going to be at social distancing, masking, distancing themselves in classes, being careful to avoid small parties and social gatherings and testing? How much testing will be done to identify those people who are asymptomatic carriers and to isolate them and quarantine? So all of the things that we can do to mitigate the infection sometimes are not considered when you develop profiles for how much infection you have. 

The Post: Are you optimistic at all about the vaccine likely to come starting in January? Has there been any talk of when or how the university would get the vaccine? 

Gaskell: Yeah, that’s Pfizer's vaccine and it looks like it’s 90% effective. There’s a lot of optimism about it, and we hope it arrives in January. Now, the issue with the vaccine will be that it’ll be rolled out gradually. We won’t get 20,000 doses all at once. We may get 1,000 or some number smaller than thousands of doses and gradually we’ll get more. The first vaccine will probably be intended for hospital workers — for those people who are at the front lines — and the individuals who are most likely to encounter patients early on in their disease. Hospital workers will be first and then those individuals with health care issues, long term health care issues. Older people will probably follow next. First responders will also be given a vaccine early... Gradually, it’ll work down to those individuals who are healthy and then younger people will get it. Probably indeed those people who attend college will be farther down the ladder in terms of getting the vaccine. They won’t get it first. But eventually, as we deliver more and more vaccines to individuals, we’ll create herd immunity, and that will ultimately bring an end to the pandemic. So, there is a lot of hope and optimism surrounding this release of this vaccine. We aren’t quite sure when it’ll arrive, but there’s great hope. 


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