Richland Public Health building

Richland Public Health is located at 555 Lexington Ave. in Mansfield. (Richland Source file photo)

MANSFIELD -- Sarah Humphrey knows there is a possibility Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday afternoon may make facial coverings mandatory in Richland County through his Ohio Public Health Advisory Alert System.

If so, the Richland Public Health commissioner, who accepted her position just about a month before COVID-19 came to Ohio, hopes local residents understand masks can save lives during the pandemic.

Sarah Humphrey

Richland Public Health Commissioner Sarah Humphrey

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"It's a small inconvenience," Humphrey said this week, stating it's been proven facial coverings slow the spread of the virus, quickening the speed at which the virus can be stopped.

"The quicker we can get this pandemic over with, the sooner we can all get back to some kind of normal living," the public health veteran said.

DeWine announced the system on July 2, a four-level, color-coded, county-by-county analysis meant to assess the spread of COVID-19.

He updates it each Thursday at 2 p.m. during his daily press briefings. A week ago, 12 counties were ranked as "red," or level three, which makes masks mandatory in public.

DeWine, who urged residents Wednesday during televised remarks to wear masks regardless of where they live, has said the new four-level system was designed to "inform and empower individuals, businesses and local governments" in their response to coronavirus spread.

The system tracks seven "indicators," including new cases per capita; sustained increases in new cases; proportion of cases not congregate cases; sustained increases om ER visits; sustained increases in outpatient visits; sustained increases in COVID-19 hospital admissions; and ICU bed occupancy.

Richland County has been ranked "orange," or level two, in both of the first two weeks, meaning it "triggered" two or three of the indicators.

Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero said last week he had learned the county had triggered three indicators  -- sustained increase in new COVID-19 cases, a higher proportion of cases not found in congregate care settings and a sustained increase in ER visits.

This week, Richland County has seen increases in new cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations, leading county Commissioner Marilyn John to announce the county may be bumped to "red," or level three, because it may have triggered four or five of the seven indicators.

"It's yet to be seen if we have triggered that fourth indicator," Humphrey said Tuesday.

If it does, Humphrey said RPH will work quickly to increase public education regarding the requirement and benefits of facial coverings, working with its community partners. The mask requirement would go into effect Friday at 6 p.m.

Humphrey said the agency's focus would be on working with businesses and other employers, ensuring they understand customers coming into the establishment would need to have a mask.

"Due to the capacity of Richland Public Health, it would be very difficult to pinpoint individuals for masks," she said. "This community has done really well in understanding that masks are the best way to keep COVID-19 numbers down."

She said there has not been a need for RPH to take any enforcement actions since state restrictions began in March.

Humphrey noted changes in a county's status could also impact efforts to re-open schools and that local superintendents are working "tirelessly" to prepare for all possible contingencies.

Under the state guidance, residents in "red" counties are also requested to decrease in-person interactions with others, consider necessary travel only and limit attending gatherings of any size.

"If you don't need to go out to events, please don't," Humphrey said. "Stay in your homes as much as you can, utilizing online services as much as possible. If you can do it remotely, do it.

"I know it's nice outside and people have felt cooped up," Humphrey sad. "If we can adhere to those more stringent guidelines, we can get through this quicker."

The "red" status would not impact businesses such as bars and restaurants, though customers must be masked as they enter until they are seated. The requirement that these establishments allow for at least six feet distance between customers and allow parties of no more than 10 remains in place, she said.

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"