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Ohio leaders must be vigilant against virus and help prevent more unnecessary deaths

Marilou Johanek

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Photo Credit: University Hospitals

It was springtime, 2020. Andy, as usual, was puttering around his yard on some new project. I couldn’t resist teasing him about spring cleaning and inquired if he did windows. My affable neighbor, a retire middle-school teacher, made a crack about only doing selective window-washing and we laughed. He had a dry sense of humor. I could count on a funny quip from Andy whenever he was outside — and he was always outside.

I was surprised when Andy brushed off the pandemic concerns and precautions as overkill. He seemed almost indifferent to alarm about a lethal virus on the rampage. Well, shrugged the cheeky 82-year-old, you gotta go sometime. When Andy headed to the airport to pick up a son visiting with family from out-of-state, a place then wracked with a severe outbreak of the coronavirus, I worried aloud about the risks. Couldn’t tell from Andy’s face what he was thinking as he stood outside. “We’ll see,” is all he said. It was the last time we talked.

After the July 4th holiday, Andy’s large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren got sick. COVID-19 was indiscriminate and punishing for kids and adults alike. Andy was dropped off at the hospital when his symptoms worsened. He was dead in a week. We said goodbye, masked and weirdly spaced out on the cemetery lawn, separated from his grieving widow and clan still recovering the contagion that killed Andy.

It’s springtime again. Andy should be here. He’d be fully vaccinated by now and wielding his wit on neighbors with his lopsided grin. So should hundreds of thousands of other Andys who died unnecessarily last year and beyond. That was the stunning, if not surprising, admission by former leaders on Trump’s feckless coronavirus task force. They’re angling to rehabilitate blown reputations by acknowledging the horror they enabled. People didn’t have to die, said Dr. Deborah Birx, who once gushed about Trump’s pandemic acumen. She conceded that most of the half-a-million-plus deaths from the virus could have been prevented but for the dysfunction, deceit, discord and ultimate indifference that flourished under the disgraced ex-president.

Andy didn’t have to die. How many other families in Ohio and across the nation are living with that hard truth about someone they loved and lost to a disease that was preventable? The gross negligence and abject incompetence of the previous administration that allowed an unfathomable amount of needless suffering and dying in America, demands an accounting for what went so wrong. The culpable must be named and shamed for all of history.

But today we are in crisis mode in a race against time as a fourth wave of coronavirus cases surges in places like neighboring Michigan. We are months away from any semblance of safe. People are still getting sick, still being intubated and placed on ventilators, still taking their last breath alone. Even as more of us are joining the ranks of the vaccinated every day, only a fraction of Ohioans and folks throughout the country have been immunized against COVID-19 or its far more contagious, and potentially more deadly, variants aggressively circulating in the population.

We see an end to our collective trauma, but we’re not there yet. Too many of us are behaving otherwise. An emergency room physician in Michigan blamed the spike in cases he’s seeing in part to “a population too exhausted, defiant, complacent, or all three, to follow basic public safety protocols anymore.” Those factors are not unique to Michigan. Plenty of Ohioans have thrown caution to the wind and infections/hospitalizations are rising instead of falling.

Politicians tasked with mitigating the threat of surging coronavirus cases and surging public frustration with life under lockdown have to navigate a responsible way forward that recognizes the competing challenges. It’s tough, but that’s their job. Governors running for reelection in Arizona, Texas, Florida and elsewhere have taken the easy way out to boost their popularity. They ditched mask mandates and other public health safeguards to get votes, not blunt outbreaks.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine may be tempted to follow suit and satisfy a restless population that will decide if he is a one-term governor next year. The state is already slow-walking public information on new coronavirus cases and deaths after underreporting Ohio’s death count by thousands a few months ago. Daily updates were squeezed to a couple days. Out of sight, out of mind?

Meanwhile, the rate of new coronavirus cases in Ohio is getting worse. Over half of our counties are on red alert. I’d like to give the guv the benefit of the doubt, but he’s running for reelection. He already lifted restrictions on mass gatherings with the assumption that mask-wearing and social distancing apply. Right. Republican legislators now want to remove his mask mandates after gutting his public health authority.

But the data doesn’t lie, and it shows a dangerous trend developing. “We’re moving in the wrong direction,” warned DeWine. Then lead. Ohioans should not die because they let their guard down or their political leadership failed them just as life-saving vaccinations roll out.

It’s too late for Andy and his family, but not you, or the people you can’t live without, or the neighbor you take for granted who makes your day. Hang on. Be Ohio Strong a little longer. It’s springtime, 2021, and I miss what should be.


Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.

This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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