CLEVELAND (WJW) – March 9 marks one year since the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Ohio. Masking and social distancing have become part of everyday life, one year after the first three cases of COVID-19 in Ohio were identified at University Hospitals.
The virus has claimed more than 17,000 lives in the state and affected everyone, from the shutdown to the urgent vaccine rollout now underway.
With its arrival in Ohio, large events including Cleveland Cavaliers games suddenly stopped, schools went virtual and, within weeks, the state closed restaurants, gyms, hair salons and banned nearly all gatherings.
The statewide shutdown, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said, aimed to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed as the virus began to take a toll.
“I had shortness of breath and a real dry, irritating cough,” Mike Auletta said.
The 61-year-old Pepper Pike man was among the first patients to be hospitalized. Despite being in good health without preexisting conditions, Auletta said he ended up unconscious for three weeks, on the brink of death.
“I said, ‘God, either take me or figure this out, either take me or get me through this. We just can’t keep doing this,’” Auletta said.
Auletta said he experienced hallucinations and lost 40 pounds during the ordeal. The virus left him with lingering cognitive problems. He had to relearn how to read a clock.
A year later, he’s still recovering.
“Ultimately you’re not in control. Something could happen to you at any time,” Auletta said.
While he was in a coma, his wife Angela, caught the virus, too.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to go down,’ because I’m the one with the precondition,” she said.
While he was in a coma, Auletta’s mother passed away from a brain aneurism.
“This doctor in the ICU, when I came in he looked at me and said, ‘I know your whole family. Your husband’s in the ICU, your mother-in-law was just here and here you are,’” Angela Auletta said.
Since March, more than 50,000 Ohioans have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 17,000 have died, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Nationwide, more than 500,000 people have died with the virus.
Auletta said he’s lucky to have survived.
“You can buy and sell anything, except time. That’s the important thing,” he said.
While he was hospitalized last March, a mad rush was underway to secure personal protective equipment for caregivers.
“We were, as a nation, poorly prepared for the scope and severity of this pandemic,” said Dr. Robert Salata, Physician-in-Chief for University Hospitals.
In the first months of the pandemic, a testing infrastructure was created, largely by states and hospitals. By May, businesses began to reopen with new protocols for sanitization and social distancing in place. More restrictions came as cases rose in July, including a statewide mask mandate.
Meanwhile, hospitals made advances in treatments, which now focus on Remdesivir, steroids and monoclonal antibodies. Fewer patients are being placed on ventilators.
“There’ve been many improvements, I think, in our learning curve about how to deal with this virus once people are hospitalized,” Salata said.
Pharmaceutical companies developed vaccines at a record pace, with the first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reaching healthcare workers by mid-December, just as the virus hit a new peak.
Ohio implemented an overnight curfew as hospitals began filling up, prompting new cooperation to pool resources, according to Cleveland Clinic Chief of Medical Operations Dr. Robert Wyllie.
Wyllie leads Ohio’s COVID response for the Zone 1 region, which includes Northern Ohio.
“That started to stretch the system,” Wyllie said. “In the Cleveland Clinic alone, we were up to 700, 800 patients a day. In a bad flu season, we would have 250 flu patients.”
Since that mid-December peak, hospitalizations and case numbers have fallen. As the oldest and most at-risk Ohioans are now vaccinated, the rush is now on to vaccinate as many people as possible before more contagious variants of the virus take hold.
“It’s a little bit of a race now,” Wyllie said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been about 30 million confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S.
But health experts, including Wyllie, said the true number of cases is likely four times that, including cases that were asymptomatic or never confirmed through testing.
Combined with the growing number of people who have been vaccinated, that means more than 150 million Americans, nearly half the country’s population, have some form of immunity, either natural or from vaccination.
With fewer people still vulnerable and precautions including masking and social distancing in place, case numbers are dropping.
“We’re going to see a steady decline in those numbers, particularly as the vaccine becomes more and more available and we vaccinate more and more people,” Wyllie said.
So far, state health departments report about 15 percent of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose.
Since the duration of natural immunity remains unclear, health leaders including Dr. Anthony Fauci have said about 70 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated to develop strong antibodies and reach herd immunity.
Only then, they say, should restrictions loosen because the impact of dangerous variants, and vaccine efficacy against them, remains largely unknown.
“I think it’s hard to predict right now, and I think making definite plans in that respect, at least for summertime, is not reasonable,” Salata said. “I think, by the fall, that is probably another time frame where we may be getting somewhat back to normal.”
Health leaders said, for now, continued social distancing, masking and hand washing is necessary as vaccinations continue. Research is underway to determine whether people who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus to others.
“Just because you don’t know somebody going through this doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Mike Auletta said.
Health leaders point to lessons that should be learned from a year unlike any other.
“We’re going to continue to see global spread of disease and infection,” Salata said. “But, we have to be prepared for that.”