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Lack Of COVID Testing Leaves Rural Counties In The Dark On Disease Spread

Ohio officials have focused testing resources in high-risk areas, like Cuyahoga County and other more populated areas.

But what about less populated rural Ohio communities? Geauga County, for example, remains at Level 1 out of 4 in the state’s risk assessment, even as adjacent counties have seen large increases in COVID-19 cases.

Does that actually mean there’s less coronavirus spread there?

Not necessarily, said Geauga County Health Commissioner Tom Quade.

“When we have areas that have greater access to testing, we’re going to have more folks in that proximity getting tested, and so the more testing you do, obviously the more cases you find,” Quade said.

“That doesn’t reflect the actual prevalence of (the) disease, and that’s a little bit troubling, that perhaps those areas actually have a better grip on what the prevalence of (the) disease is because of the increased testing.”

Geauga County's coronavirus testing rates are low, but Quade said that isn’t necessarily reflective of  low prevalence of the disease.

It’s possible the lack of testing means the county doesn’t fully know how much the virus has spread, he said.  

“That would be actually fairly disturbing, but we don’t have a way of knowing that for sure,” Quade said.

A sign in Chardon, in Geauga County, reminds residents and visitors of social distancing guidelines. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

Even without widespread testing in less populated areas, Geauga County still has to abide by state rules like Gov. Mike DeWine's mask mandate. 

In Chardon, the county seat, it appears many people are following the guideline and wearing a facial covering. 

Masks are not necessarily required in outdoor spaces in Ohio if social distancing can be observed. But on a recent visit to the town square where there is a park with a gazebo and picnic table, ideastream reporter Lisa Ryan observed many people wearing masks.

Two brothers were in the park wearing masks, and they said they’ve been wearing them even before they were required to do so. But even though they feel the masks are good protection against COVID-19 spread, they don’t like the idea of the governor mandating masks.

“It’s kind of sad to see that people have to wear it to do their normal everyday activities,” Joe from Chardon said. “It’s like that liberty versus security argument. Freedom’s important, but keeping people safe, it’s hard to keep the balance with that.”

Some Chardon residents don’t like the mask mandate because they don't believe they need to wear masks, Health Commissioner Quade said.

“It’s something that’s misunderstood by a lot of our population to begin with,” he said. “We have a lot of doubters that it even exists. We have a lot of doubters in regard to the strategies we’re employing, but we do know we do those things, the numbers go down. But then when the numbers go down, it’s very difficult to convince folks to do the things that will keep them down.”

The state looks at several indicators to determine how bad coronavirus spread is in each county, which determines its color or risk level. The Ohio Department of Health is developing a metric to also analyze the amount of testing per capita because the number of tests in a county will determine how much the state know about coronavirus spread.

Quade said Geauga County’s lower population is a factor in why the county hasn’t seen as much testing.

“There’s sort of a circular reasoning in that our numbers aren’t so bad, we’re not a hot spot, so we don’t need to have the tests,” he said. “Well, if we don’t have the tests, we’re not going to show the numbers that demonstrate we’re a hot spot.”

The Geauga Theater marquee reads "Stay Safe." A note on the theater's website says the theater has suspended all operations and is closed until further notice. [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

Travel from county to county is also an issue, and Quade said it was a huge factor in deciding to hold the Geauga County Fair as a junior fair only.

“If we do have even a modified full fair, we’re going to be drawing folks from all over the state because there’s so few fairs left,” he said. “And a lot of our neighbors aren’t in yellow, they’re in red.”

Patterson Fruit Farm is in Chesterland, near the borders of Cuyahoga and Lake counties. It’s a popular destination for people in the area, some of whom travel from higher-risk counties.

A cashier at Patterson Fruit Farm said for the most part, customers are following the mask mandate, but she said they don't confront customers who don't follow it.

Enforcement has been inconsistent throughout the state, with many businesses choosing to avoid conflict with customers. 

But some of the residents do believe coronavirus is an issue, like Jeremy from Chardon, who doesn’t go into public places. He’s been following the news and watching the rise in cases, but he’s most concerned about one thing.

“I’m hoping we have football season, that’s what my big thing is for the fall," he said.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.