PUTNAM COUNTY — The number of Putnam County residents who have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus has increased significantly over the past two weeks.

The Putnam County Health Department reported 80 new confirmed cases between Aug. 26 and Sept. 2, and the Ohio Department of Health reports 63 new confirmed cases over the six-day period beginning Sept. 2 and ending at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Last Thursday, Governor Mike DeWine declared Putnam a red county, indicating significant spread of the virus.

That designation of ‘red,’ though, could be tempered through the lens of how the Public Health Alerting System was proposed to work, and how the State of Ohio opted to present the information.

“Public health had proposed it to be a monthly update,” PC Health Commissioner Kim Rieman said, explaining that the weekly update was not what was originally proposed. “Counties would get their own specific data each week, so they could see what was happening. But the actual health alerting system would be changed on a monthly basis, is what we proposed.”

As a consequence, on several occasions, counties cited as ‘red’ turned their status around in a week or less, dropping back to ‘orange.’

With that said, Rieman also expressed her belief such will not prove the case in Putnam County. Rather, she forecasts weeks of red status.

“The reason I believe we’ll be staying red for several weeks is because once you are red, they look at your number of cases per 100,000,” she explained. “They want that number to be under 100 cases per 100,000.”

Last Thursday, that occurence rate was upwards of 280 cases per 100,000; a reality that isn’t likely to change in the immediate future.

“We have a ways to go before we can get under that 100 per 100,000,” Rieman said. “So it’s not going to happen that quickly.”

In addition to the occurence rate, there are a number of other criteria which come into play: the number of new cases over a five-day period, and cases in non-congregate settings — or what is commonly referred to as community spread — are two such. Both are high in Putnam County.

“There are a couple of things going on with the other indicators, and there are a few, I believe, that will keep us in the red category,” Rieman said. “If we have a steady increase in (emergency room) visits, or doctor’s visits, that will keep us red alone, not even looking at our rate.”

As for the rate, there’s a good deal of skepticism expressed on social media suggesting the numbers are inflated, or a sole consequence of increased testing.

Addressing the former, Rieman said testing is a direct result of residents coming down with the virus.

“(Those getting tested) are individuals who are having symptoms and going to get tested,” she said. “There may be some employers, like long-term care facilities, that are having their employees tested. But as the health department, if we call someone to say they’re a contact with a confirmed case, we do not tell them to get tested. We tell them to observe the 14-day quarantine period and call their doctor if they begin to express symptoms.”

As for a suspected inflating of numbers, Rieman offered an opposite opinion.

“Our numbers, and I don’t have any proof, but our numbers are probably higher (than reported),” she said. “Some people are, like, oh those numbers are overinflated, and I bet those really aren’t our numbers. There are a lot of people who are choosing to not get tested. I truly think the numbers would even be a bit higher if everyone went to get tested who are showing symptoms.”

That the county is showing such an increase comes as no surprise. Rural Ohio counties are now the state’s hotspots.

“We’re not unlike many rural counties in the state that are experiencing an increase,” Rieman said. “The top ten counties are typically rural counties. Part of that is because we haven’t seen high numbers before, and individuals were not as concerned with following the guidlines set up by the state for the masking and the social distancing.”

And the increased rate of infection is taking its toll across the spectrum of young to old.

In a video posted on the district’s websit on Sunday, and later in a letter likewise posted on the internet, Columbus Grove Schools Superintendent Nick Verhoff announced a shift in how the district will conduct classes.

“While the start of the school year has gone very well in many ways, we are now experiencing the multiple obstacles of trying to conduct operations in the midst of COVID,” Verhoff stated. “The fact that our county has gone to “Red” and is now the #1 county in the state in terms of new cases per 100,000 has only made matters more challenging. Due to contact tracing, as of Tuesday, September 8, 62 students have had to quarantine in our district, creating a significant disruption in the educational process, particularly at the junior high and high school levels.”

As a consequence of that disruption, Verhoff announced the district will adopt a hybrid model for students in grades 7 through 12, effective Monday, Sept. 14. Splitting the students into two groups — Red and Gray — half will attend in-class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday, while the second half will attend in person Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the Fridays not already attended by the previously mentioned group. Each group, then, will attend virtually on the two days not attending in-class sessions.

At this time, Rieman reports she is unaware of any other district immediately considering similar action, but acknowledged it could well prove necessary elsewhere.

As to how best to stave off such an eventuality, Rieman said it boils down to residents recognizing that one of the county’s strengths — the tight-knit nature of this community and the strong familial bonds inherent here — as it relates to COVID-19 is often problematic.

“I think, in general, we’re a pretty social community,” she said. “We just need to follow those guidelines a little bit more, and really work at keeping our number of contacts small. Wearing masks and social distancing; those are the things we need to continue to stress during this time when we’re having high numbers.”