MANSFIELD -- When it comes to COVID-19 and the color purple, no news is inexplicable news, according to Richland County commissioners.
All three commissioners expressed frustration on Tuesday the state has not explained to them what happens Thursday if Richland County becomes the first in Ohio to be designated "purple," or level four, under the state's Public Health Advisory System.
"We are two days away from the the governor's office and Ohio Department of Health potentially taking us to purple. And we don't have an answer yet to what that means. The health department can not answer that question," Commissioner Marilyn John said.
"Does that mean businesses shut down? The indicators say to only leave your home to get supplies and services. What does that mean? What supplies, what services are allowed?" John asked.
"I don't know. What does that mean if we go purple and we have yet to have an answer to that question," John said.
Commissioner Darrell Banks said, "I think (the state) is making things up as they go. They don't seem to have a plan."
Gov. Mike DeWine updates the four-tiered, color-coded ranking system, introduced by the state in July, each Thursday afternoon during news conferences. The only guidance on the ODH website for level four is, "Severe exposure and spread. Only leave home for supplies and services. Follow all current health orders."
DeWine announced last week Richland County was "red," or level three, and was being placed on the "watch list" to become purple this week if conditions do not improve. The county "triggered" six of the state's seven indicators for spread of the virus in a community.
Richland Public Health Commissioner Sarah Humphrey said Tuesday the impact of a level four designation has not been provided to her office, either.
"(We) have been provided the same statement of what a purple status assessment means, should that be where we go on Thursday," Humphrey said.
An ODH spokesperson told Richland Source on Friday the designation would not include business closures, the type of which the state ordered when the pandemic began in March. When asked if that meant residents could leave their homes to go to restaurants, movie theaters or other forms of entertainment, she didn't have an answer.
COVID-19 outbreaks at two state prisons in Mansfield -- Richland Correctional Institution and Mansfield Correctional Institution -- have helped drive the county's numbers.
Positive COVID-19 tests among inmates at the prisons do not count in the Public Health Advisory System's testing indicators. However, prison staff members do count, as do inmates who are treated at local hospitals.
John said, as of Tuesday, 54 COVID-19 hospitalizations are currently attributed to Richland County, including 13 at OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital and one at Avita. She said two of the 14 local hospitalizations are prison inmates.
She said the remaining 40 patients are hospitalized outside of Richland County.
As of Monday afternoon, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction website, 25 inmates at MANCI and two staff members have currently tested positive for coronavirus. The new positive tests for the inmates were publicly reported Monday.
The same website update shows 79 inmates and 61 staff members at the nearby RICI are currently positive for COVID-19, an outbreak that began about two weeks ago.
Commissioner Tony Vero, pointing the county was "yellow," or level one, for four consecutive weeks in late summer, blamed the swift reversal of the virus spread on the prison outbreaks.
"So we're about to go purple. State of Ohio, you created this system months ago. It says 'stay at home, travel when necessary.' That is what is listed on their website. So when you asked the question, 'What does that mean?' They give you 'We don't know.'
"And I think you owe a little more than that to residents of (Richland County) and to a business to tell them what that means. But more importantly, again, I'm still seeking the justification for why we would be going purple under the circumstances as it exists in this county," Vero said.
"One of the things I've heard from a health official was where you could see it spreading because of all the different zip codes it's in. I'm assuming those would probably some of the (prison) staff members who live in those zip codes," Vero said.
Vero said state numbers show that around two-tenths of 1 percent of Richland County residents are currently positive for the virus.
"I think it's hard to (explain it to) residents and business owners and parents who want their kids to play in sports and stay in extracurricular activities, which are extremely important," Vero said.