“So, How Are Things In Ohio?”

We’ve had a number of phone calls with family and friends during this COVID-19 shutdown period, and one of the questions you typically get from people who live outside the Buckeye State is:  “So, how are things in Ohio?”  With all of the attention being paid to terrible hot spots like New York, states like Ohio can get lost in the shuffle.

virus-outbreak-ohio-30The answer to the question is:  Ohio is doing just fine.  In fact, you could argue that Ohio is doing better than just fine — it’s actually doing pretty well, thank you very much.

When you talk about pandemics, you’re always going to talk about numbers.  According to the information released yesterday, Ohio has 5,878 cases of the coronavirus, with 1,755 hospitalizations and 231 deaths.  That’s 231 deaths too many, of course, but the reality is that Ohio stacks up pretty well against other states on a per capita basis — especially for a state with a number of more densely populated urban areas.  According to the New York Times state-by-state chart, 5,878 cases puts Ohio at number 17 in terms of the total number of cases, but Ohio’s count stands at 50 cases per 100,000, and 2 deaths per 100,000.  That puts Ohio at number 34 among the states on the list of cases per 100,000 people, and number 27 on the list of deaths per 100,000 people.  By those metrics, Ohio is orders of magnitude better off than states like New York, New Jersey, and Louisiana.  New York, by comparison, has reported 869 cases per 100,000 people and 40 deaths per 100,000 people.

Ohio was one of the first states to impose a preventive shutdown order, in hopes of flattening (and, incidentally, extending) the infection curve, and by all accounts those efforts have worked like a charm.  Dr. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, recently said that the social distancing practiced by Ohioans has “squashed” and “stretched” the curve.  That means that Ohio’s hospitals and health care facilities aren’t being overwhelmed by cases right now, and shouldn’t be overwhelmed in the future.  We’re now reaching the peak of the modified curve, and officials are forecasting that we’ll hit about 1,600 new cases per day, which is far below that nearly 10,000 cases per day that were initially forecast to be the peak of the curve.

The progress in Ohio has been such that Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, says that he is working on a plan to get the state back to normal, because “things are not as bad as they might have been.”  The current Ohio shutdown order ends on May 1, nearly three weeks from now.  Will it be allowed to expire, so people can go back to work, and if so, under what circumstances?

Those are questions that authorities in Ohio, and across the country, will be wrestling with, state by state.  Ohio’s officials have established a pretty good track record on making these kinds of tough decisions so far — but I think they also realize that the state  can’t stay in shutdown mode forever, and people need to get back to work.  Balancing public health, the state’s economy, and the mental and financial well-being of state residents will be a huge challenge.  If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that being governor is not an easy job.

Breaking The Bad News

We’ve been seeing a lot of our nation’s governors lately.  In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has been on TV so much with afternoon announcements about COVID-19 developments that some people are timing their first cocktail with the news conferences and enjoying “Wine with DeWine.”  We’re getting a living reminder of lessons learned during our junior high school civics classes and the fact that we live in a country where the states have significant powers and duties.  When a once-in-a-lifetime crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic hits, governors are put front and center in dealing with all of the issues.

img_2632Unfortunately for the nation’s governors, a lot of what they’re doing right now is breaking bad news.  They’re announcing shutdowns and “shelter in place” edicts and other orders and showing small-print graphs and charts that make people upset and anxious.  Nobody except introverts and hermits wants to be cooped up in their houses indefinitely.  But the time durations of these shutdown orders varies widely, from state to state.  In Ohio, I think the initial “stay at home” order covered the period until April 6.  In Virginia, by contrast, the governor just announced a shutdown until June 10 — more than two months longer than the initial Ohio order.

The current situation squarely raises the issue of the best way to break bad news.  Put yourself in the shoes of the governor of your choice.  If you were issuing a shutdown order, would you give your citizens the worst-case scenario — which seems to be the technique used by the Virginia governor — so that they can start to get adjusted to the prospect of being at home for two months?  It’s a kind of “rip the band-aid off” approach, isn’t it?  And, if you take that approach, you can hope that future developments might allow you to shorten that time period and give the residents of the Old Dominion a pleasant spring surprise.

Or, do you proceed in a more incremental way, issuing orders that have a shorter duration, acknowledging that this is a fast changing situation where you need to be responsive to new information?  Of course, all the while you would understand that you might well have to extend your shutdown, perhaps multiple times, and disappoint people who were hoping the current deadline would stick?  In that scenario, you’re doling out the bad news in bite-sized chunks, hoping it might go down easier.

I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this, necessarily.  Some people are band-aid rippers, and others prefer to remove them a fraction at a time.  I’m normally a band-aid ripper, but I think if I were governor during this period I’d take the incremental approach.  We’re still gathering information about the coronavirus and its trajectory, and an incremental approach allows that information to be analyzed and addressed as it comes in, giving the governor the chance to keep the citizens of his or her state updated and abreast of the latest news.  The incremental approach seems a bit more humble and nuanced than the two-month thunderbolt edict issued from the executive.  And who knows?  There may be something to this “Wine with DeWine” thing, too.

Gram Scam

Every grandkid knows that if they are in a pinch and really need money, they can always make a discreet withdrawal from the Bank of Grandma.  Unfortunately, fraudsters have learned that same lesson and are using that knowledge to prey on the elderly and bilk them out of their retirement savings.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been warning of scams that follow this story line.  The unsuspecting senior citizen receives a frantic phone call from a young person purporting to be their grandchild or some other relation.  The terrified kid is in an awful jam — maybe he needs money to get out of jail, or to pay a spring break hotel bill because his friends skipped town on him — and he’s counting on Grandma or Grandpa to help him out by wiring some money right away.  He didn’t want to call Mom or Dad, because they’ll never forgive him, and he knows Grandma and Grandpa will keep his secret.  And he’ll pay the money back, of course.  The worried grandparent, secretly pleased to be of help, goes to the bank or Western Union to send the money, and they never see that money again.

It’s pathetic, of course, that crooks would consciously try to cheat older people, but they’ve been doing so since the dawn of time.  What’s really heartbreaking is that the defrauded grandparents are so trusting, and have such strong senses of familial obligation, that they are inclined to send thousands of dollars on the basis of a single phone call from a person whose voice they obviously don’t know and who claims to be a relative they haven’t talked to in months.  Perhaps each of us should call the elders of our families — not only to alert them to this scam, but also to re-acquaint them with the sounds of our voices.