ASHLAND -- The Ashland County Health Department is prepared to aid in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as it arrives in Ohio.
The ACHD recently installed an ultra-cold freezer, which reaches temperatures cold enough to store the vaccine.
The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius. The first doses were distributed to select hospitals in Ohio on Monday.
"Don't give up. Please don't give up," said ACHD director of nursing Shirley Bixby. "With the vaccine coming in, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope."
The freezer arrived the day after Ashland County was placed on the state's "watch list," based on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System. The designation means Ashland County is considered at risk for reaching a "purple" status, or level 4 public emergency, in the color-coded system.
"They were 100 percent accurate. We've had a large increase in cases, and it's very concerning," Bixby said. "With the increased cases we're seeing, there's increased spread, and with that increased spread, it's more difficult on long-term care facilities to keep their residents safe.
"That's where I'm concerned. The older populations become more vulnerable, and it's harder to protect the people we're trying to protect."
Ashland County Commissioners ordered the freezer about three months ago, Commissioner Denny Bittle estimated.
All three Commissioners supported the purchase of the ultra-cold freezer for $7,795 and its alarm for an additional $1,020 with CARES Act funding.
"I had looked into it, and talked to Mike (Welch) and Jim (Justice). I said, we need to be prepared," Bittle said. "There wasn’t anything out there (COVID-19) vaccine-related that wasn’t required to be frozen."
The freezer arrived just in time. Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday the first COVID-19 vaccines were being distributed to 10 hospitals around the state.
Ashland County wasn't included in the first distribution, but the state expects to receive 660,000 doses from Pfizer by the end of December in the first wave of the recently-approved vaccine.
"Really excited that we are prepared for that. I don’t think the timing could be any better because the discussion is happening now on how we distribute it," Bittle said. "I’ve not heard any numbers on how smaller counties will get the vaccine yet."
On Monday, Dec. 14, the ACHD reported 95 or more active cases of COVID-19 in Ashland County residents, bringing the cumulative total to at least 1,634. The health department also reported 11 current hospitalizations and 27 confirmed deaths. Another 12 deaths were awaiting official determination. The 12 additional deaths will only be added to the confirmed count if COVID-19 is determined to be the primary cause of death.
"We are struggling to contact our cases. We're about a week behind," Bixby said. "Ashland County had earlier had a very good handle on isolation and quarantine. We'd have maybe a day or two lag at most. Some of the cases would come in, and we'd contact them right away.
"Now, there's so many. We did hire more contact tracers, but with the cases increasing every day, it has become difficult for us."
The numbers posted regularly to the health department's Facebook page have become estimates. The "new case" queue allows a maximum of 200 cases to be viewed at once, but lately clearing the queue has been challenging, she explained.
The Ohio Department of Health's most recent report showed Ashland County recorded 471 new positive coronavirus tests in the last two weeks, which is up significantly from the 276 new cases recorded in the previous two-week span.
The ACHD's numbers may not match the state's numbers, as the health department's staff aims to contact every Ashland County resident with a positive case of COVID-19 in order to confirm their residency. Bixby asked that people answer the ACHD's calls, even if they are feeling well or reaching the conclusion of their quarantine or isolation.
"It's a burden on public health, and we apologize, but we can't keep up with this kind of case load, no matter how many people we put in place to contact trace," Bixby said. "We're trying to do the best job we can for the public."
Until the vaccine can be distributed, she urged the community to take a "full armor" approach to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This includes limiting social gatherings, wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizer.