MANSFIELD -- The number of COVID-19 patients in Richland County hospitals declined sharply in the second half of December, according to Richland Public Health.
However, hospitalizations also appear to be slightly on the rise in the first few days of 2021, said public health officials, who cautioned residents not to relax in their efforts to avoid coronavirus.
Officials remain concerned holiday gatherings may result in a spike in infection numbers.
There were 47 people in Richland County hospitals with COVID-19 on Dec. 31, down from 60 on Dec. 29, according to Richland Public Health Commissioner Sarah Humphrey, using data provided by the Ohio Hospital Association's Northeast Central Ohio Region.
According to this OHA data, the worst single day in terms of local hospitalizations for December was on Dec. 15 when there were 83.
Regional hospitalization numbers used as one part of the color-coded Ohio Public Health Advisory System are based on the OHA data.
The numbers reported Tuesday came as a surprise. During December, RPH had reported a single-day high of 126 on Dec. 29 to local media outlets, a number which relied upon the Ohio Disease Reporting System, Humphrey said.
Why the variance in numbers?
OHA numbers are reported directly from OhioHealth Mansfield and Shelby hospitals, as well as Avita Hospital, to the Northeast Central Ohio Region, Humphrey said.
"They are asked to provide these numbers daily is my understanding. These patient counts are limited to Richland County, do not account for Richland County residents that are hospitalized in hospitals of other counties nor does it take out the number of other county residents who are hospitalized here," Humphrey said.
She said RPH has not received updated OHA numbers since the Dec. 31 report, though local hospitals have "alluded to an increase of numbers" since then.
Humphrey said the previous hospitalization numbers reported to local media by Richland Public Health via the ODRS was from an Ohio Health Department database that is updated, but subject to lag when the case volume increased, as it did in the final two months of 2020.
"As we know, there has been an exponential growth of cases in the last 60 days which has caused a new protocol to be followed for contact tracing (and) case investigation, as well as the reporting of rapid-antigen testing," Humphrey said. "Due to this, the number of hospitalizations became a rolling prevalence number rather with a larger denominator than just a given day."
Going forward, RPH will only report OHA data in "order to provide consistency, and until full case investigations can be completed that will provide the historical accuracy of discharge dates of hospitalizations," Humphrey said.
"As always, it is important that data limitations in these numbers also be recognized," she said. "Epidemiologists in both the hospital systems, as well as public health locally, nationally, and at the state level are working tirelessly to provide reliable data but as you know, with the unpredictable nature of this disease, it is understandable that data will solidify when time is given it's appropriate allowances."
According to the Ohio Department of Health website, updated Tuesday at 2 p.m., more than 6 percent of Richland County residents (7,879) have tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic reached Ohio in March of 2020.
ODH reported a total of 433 hospitalizations since the pandemic began with 90 deaths and 6,144 presumed recoveries.