Gov. Mike DeWine
[Andy Chow | Statehouse News Bureau]

Coronavirus Response: Ohio Officials Promise More Tests, Masks, Jobless Benefits

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WYSO) — More coronavirus testing and more protective masks will soon be available statewide as Ohio officials work to continue flattening Ohio’s COVID-19 curve.

At his daily briefing Wednesday, Gov. Mike DeWine also announced further steps towards easing the essential businesses order.

Dozens of confirmed COVID-19 deaths have been recorded across the state in just the last few days, with confirmed cases now reported in 87 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton called the numbers, “the tip of the iceberg,” citing the lack of widespread coronavirus testing for all but those considered highest-risk, such as health care workers.

As part of the effort to expand coronavirus testing to more Ohioans, DeWine announced a new program aimed at speeding test results.

The program, based at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, would create 3D-printed test swabs, which are currently in short supply, and produce them at a Toledo manufacturing facility. DeWine promises the program is on track to produce and distribute as many as 200,000 test kits by the end of April.

As more testing becomes available, the governor hopes the state could move forward plans for reopening the economy.

DeWine says he’s instructed every industry in the state to begin putting together a protocol for how it would protect employees and customers when non-essential businesses are allowed to open up again, setting a deadline of one week to share plans with the DeWine administration.

The governor is also asking business leaders to incorporate lessons learned from essential businesses that continue to operate during the outbreak.

“Because we know as we go into the future, it is still going to be with us. And when the businesses reopen, they’re going to have to deal with COVID-19. They’re going to have to deal with how they keep their employees protected, how they keep their customers protected,” DeWine says. “And so I’ve asked them to start down the pathway to look at that.”

To protect more of the state’s first responders, the governor announced an expansion of an agreement with the Columbus-based Battelle company to sanitize and distribute the personal protective equipment commonly known as PPE to first responders.

Under the plan, officials say State Highway Patrol deputies would collect used and boxed N97 masks from law enforcement and fire department agencies from any state patrol post, deliver them to Battelle for cleaning, and then return them to first responders for free within a couple of days. Public Safety officials are expected to announce specific guidelines in the coming days for properly packaging the masks for transport to Battelle.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted acknowledged the ongoing delays and backlogs in the state’s unemployment-benefits system that are delaying payments to struggling Ohioans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state is seeing record-breaking numbers of unemployment applications, with more jobless claimed filed over the last month than in the last two years. Husted says he’s working with Job and Family Services officials to build capacity, resolve technical issues and add additional call and online-application capacity to process more emergency claims under the federal CARES disaster aid program.

Husted says the agency has pledged to improve customer service to help the thousands of Ohioans left jobless and struggling as a result of the state’s essential business order and layoffs related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We and they hear you and they are adding capacity but the bottom line is this won’t stop improving until everyone is served,” Husted says.

Husted also says help is on the way for contract workers paid with 1099s. Job and Family Services is expected to launch a dedicated online tool to handle this applications, saying early applications would open by the end of next week with processing beginning May 15.

Officials urge applicants to include the special “2000180” application number to help speed the verification and processing of claims, saying all claims will be backdated the applicants’ date of unemployment.