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Health officials investigating impact of party

A line of cars waiting for coronavirus testing wraps around the backside of the Walgreens in Marietta Thursday and spills onto South Third Street. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

Health officials in both Washington and Wood counties are still trying to trace the impacts of a mid-June gathering outside of Belpre which has been traced to multiple positive test results for coronavirus.

“One challenge there is the mobility of this age group and that they’re not as likely to answer a call or be reached by home phone,” explained Anne Goon, commissioner of the Marietta-Belpre Health Department.

The party, according to officials still investigating, was attended by adults between the ages of 18 and 30, stretching over the course of June 17-20.

Goon confirmed Wednesday that the municipal department is working in tandem with the Washington County Health Department and the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in West Virginia to monitor not only the approximately 15 people per night who attended the gathering near Veto but also all of the individuals with whom those attending were in close contact afterward.

“It’s hard, too, because at that age you think you’re invincible and yes if you’re young you’re not as likely to have severe symptoms but you can still carry that to someone with underlying health conditions or to someone elderly,” said Goon.

Coronavirus testing takes place in the drive-thru at Walgreens in Marietta Thursday. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

Carrie Brainard, public information officer for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said even solidifying exactly who was exposed has been tricky.

“They’re not being really forthcoming about letting us know who was there, or when, possibly because they’re worried about getting in trouble but we don’t care about what they were doing there (ex. underage consumption of alcohol), we just want to have consistent contact to monitor and get individuals tested and isolated,” said Brainard.

Brainard said one phone call is not the only contact the local health departments need with individuals who may now be carriers of the virus without showing severe symptoms.

“We need consistent follow-up to know if they’re presenting symptoms later, even if the initial test came back negative,” she explained.

One woman who came in contact with the host of that party after the gathering concluded and then tested positive for coronavirus spoke with the Times on condition that we only reveal a portion of her identity.

“I didn’t go to the party, but my friend … came to stay with me the Sunday after,” explained Hannah, 21, of Parkersburg.

Hannah said she experienced only achiness and muscle weakness on June 24, but by June 25 other attendees of the party stopped attributing their symptoms to the aftereffects of alcohol consumption and began to worry about the possibility of coronavirus infection.

“There was more of a group discussion then of hey, maybe we should go get tested, maybe this isn’t just having gone too hard,” said Hannah. “And I work in a senior living facility so I didn’t want to take that in to there either when we’ve taken so many precautions to keep them safe and it can spread so fast once it’s in.”

Hannah said she was directed by her company to get tested on June 27, with the hopes that the week’s time for incubation would provide a more reliable specimen for accurate results.

“I only got my results back though on Monday,” she described. “But we assumed and I’ve been in quarantine. And thankfully my company’s policy is that you can’t come back to work until you’ve had two negative tests.”

Monday she was also directed by her company to get tested again, this time by the National Guard.

“They were so professional and when I pulled up they asked if I was the positive case, when I told them yes they said to keep my windows rolled up until I got to the testing tent and then they did it and I came back negative,” she explained. “But I still will need to be tested again before going back.”

Hannah said other friends who also attended the party initially tested negative for the virus when they went the week following the party.

“But then one started showing symptoms later and shortness of breath so he went to the emergency department and they tested him again and that time he was positive,” she described.

Others infected only experienced a loss of taste or smell.

She said while some of the attendees and surrounding friends took the guidance to isolate seriously, others were back out in Marietta bars for the Fourth of July weekend.

Meanwhile, Goon and Sherry Ellem, public information officer for the Washington County Health Department also noted this week that the two departments were called in to address a separate health concern over an employee of the Taco Bell in Belpre who reportedly tested positive for the virus but continued to work.

“That was something we addressed over the weekend and it’s tough because we can’t even reveal to the employer who the employee is, so we start with the employers to check with them what is their COVID procedure?” said Goon. “The actual case itself fell to the county since the individual worked in the city limits but resided outside.”

She said customers of the restaurant would not have had close contact or time for impactful exposure with the positive individual.

Ellem said the guidance for employers is to not have an individual return to work until they are cleared from monitoring by the supervising health department with jurisdiction over an employee’s residential district.

“And that’s not just stayed at home, but stayed in isolation,” said Ellem.

The behavior of an individual whether they work, travel, stay home or socialize is key, said both Ellem and Goon.

“It’s not just where you go but what you do when you get there and how others are behaving around you when you’re wherever you are,” added Goon. “We know our current cases are not occurring in our facilities right now, they’re in the community as a whole.”

Ellem said the U.S. National Guard was in local senior living facilities in Washington County Wednesday conducting swab testing of staff and residents, but that results were not yet available Thursday.

Ellem also noted a prevalence study is about to launch in Southeast Ohio, conducted by the Ohio State University and Ohio Department of Health partnership.

“Letters and postcards are being sent out to individual homes that were randomly selected,” said Ellem. “We want to make sure that if people get these letters they don’t throw them out, this is a legitimate research study.”

The postcard provided as an example by Ellem to the Times shows a woman in a yellow t-shirt with a surgical mask and the request to “Help us fight COVID-19. Please answer your door when we visit.”

“We want to make sure that if people get these letters they know this is legitimate and that these investigators will be hitting our area,” said Ellem.

The postcard provided notes that the survey will include no-cost COVID-19 tests administered at the homes of volunteers polled by the team of testers.

“Our team will be in your neighborhood in the coming weeks and may knock on your door,” it reads. “Please take part in this important, voluntary effort. Together we can defeat this disease.”

Goon also noted Wednesday that while lines have increased at local testing sites including both Memorial Health System’s Pike Street location and the Walgreen’s pharmacy drive-thru in downtown Marietta, the likelihood of a false negative result is greater than that of a false positive.

“We’re still learning so much about this virus but we have come to that understanding,” she said.

Ellem also said Wednesday that while Memorial Health System does tally both the number of administered tests and the number of positive results, the publication by another local news medium this week that all of those positive results showed a severe spike in Washington County cases was incorrect.

As of Thursday, Gov. Mike DeWine did not elevate Washington County’s alert level for indicators dictating greater community spread from the baseline of yellow.

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