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Ohio’s unvaccinated might be in as much danger now as they were in February. But state officials can’t directly track them

By Marty Schladen and Ohio Capital Journal

More than 5 million Ohioans have started getting vaccinated against the coronavirus — and a few lucky ones will win a million bucks or a free ride to college for doing so.

That has overall disease, hospitalization and death numbers plummeting as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ends covid restrictions on Wednesday. 

But the 64% of Ohioans who haven’t begun their vaccinations appear to be in as much danger as they were in the deadly days of February. That’s when nearly 2,000 Ohioans were hospitalized with covid — about three times the 622 who were hospitalized with the disease on Tuesday.

In other words, unvaccinated Ohioans might not be getting the right message from good coronavirus news because it doesn’t seem to apply to them. 

Unfortunately, state health officials can’t say for sure.

The Washington Post last week published a state-by-state analysis assuming that vaccinations were at least 85% effective at keeping people out of the hospital with covid. It recalculated covid metrics excluding 85% of vaccinated people and compared resulting rates to what they were for the general population before vaccines were widely available.

Ohio came out in the middle of the pack, which isn’t great. It showed that among the unvaccinated, the state’s daily rate of covid hospitalizations of 40 per 100,000 people is similar to what it was for the population as a whole on Feb. 16.

Most of Ohio’s neighbors have similar hospitalization rates among the unvaccinated. In Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky it’s 40 per 100,000.

Neighboring Michigan for months has been hammered with a fast-spreading variant and its unvaccinated population is estimated to have 60 hospitalizations per 100,000. Pennsylvania also has an unvaccinated hospitalization rate of 60 per 100,000, the analysis said.

The analysis used conservative assumptions about how effective the vaccines are based on scientific data. Even so, they’re still just estimates.

Tantalizingly, officials with the Ohio Department of Health have data about who’s sick and who’s been vaccinated, but not the technology to match them up. 

“Within the disease reporting system (ODRS), there is a notation for whether someone is vaccinated or not,” spokeswoman Megan Smith said in an email. “However, it is not possible to run a report by vaccine status at the state level because of the limitations of the system.”

Meanwhile, state leaders are continuing to try to persuade Ohioans to get vaccinated. They have credited the Vax-a-Million promotion for a 28% vaccination increase during the first two weeks of the promotion among people who could have gotten shots before it was announced.

“Ohio’s Vax-a-Million drawing was designed to bring attention and excitement to vaccination efforts around the state,” ODH Director Stephanie McCloud said in a statement. “This data showing significant increases in vaccination numbers during the two weeks since the contest was announced demonstrates it is working. Vaccines are our best tool to return to the lives we remember from before the pandemic.”

Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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