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2021 In Review: Ohio Continues To Struggle With COVID-19

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The second year of the COVID pandemic brought hope to many Ohioans as a vaccine became available, though many others refused to take it. That prompted controversy and confusion in businesses and schools and erupted into a fury of debate at the Ohio Statehouse. As this year draws to a close, Statehouse correspondent Jo Ingles reports on the highlights and lowlights of this somewhat unexpected second year of COVID in Ohio.

As 2021 began, new COVID vaccines were being rolled out in phases. The first were given to EMTs and front-line medical workers. Then nursing home residents and staff could get them. And while residents overwhelmingly got them, more than 60% of staffers initially refused. Ohio Health Care Association President Pete Van Runkle blamed misinformation for that. 

“They see on social media that the government is putting microchips in you or the government is putting a vaccine out there that hasn’t been properly studied." 

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In late January, senior citizens and Ohio’s teachers became eligible. Yvette Hardy, who teaches at a private school in Columbus, was one of many educators gathered inside a local high school gym for a shot.

"I think it's just about doing your part. Doing your part for your students, for your community, for the betterment of the learning environment, essentially for everyone whether that's personal or professional.” 

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In March, more vaccines were available so age restrictions were lowered and more people signed up for shots. Thousands flocked to big arenas that served as shot clinics. And many said they were relieved to finally have some protection against COVID. But there was also backlash it coming from anti-vaxxers who testified in front of lawmakers with conspiracy theories, such as northeast Ohio osteopathic doctor Sherri Tenpenny. 

"You can put a key on their forehead. It sticks. You can put spoons and forks all over them and they stick," 

Meanwhile, state health leaders and Gov. DeWine were encouraging Ohioans to get the shots. The governor used some federal COVID funds for two different lotteries to give away chances to vaccinated Ohioans to win big cash jackpots and educational scholarships.

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But bills that would prevent vaccine mandates were being pushed by majority Republicans at the Statehouse, some of whom said they would not get the COVID vaccine, and citing incorrect information as their reason to avoid the shots. 

As some colleges started requiring students to get shots and businesses began mandating workers get vaccinated, lawmakers passed a law that would prevent public colleges and many state workers from requiring vaccines that haven’t received full FDA approval - clearly targeting COVID vaccines. State Senator Andrew Brenner: 

“This is about personal rights. But it also about making sure our students are protected and that parents are making the decisions and college students are making the decisions about their own personal rights,"  

Ohio Attorney General filed suit against a mandate from the Biden administration that required many employees to get the vaccines.

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Credit Jo Ingles / Statehouse News Bureau
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Statehouse News Bureau
Ohioans protest for passage of a bill to halt vaccine requirements by employers and others

Some lawmakers clamored for even more protection against vaccine mandates. And hundreds of supporters protested at the Statehouse for a bigger bill that would do away with nearly all vaccine   mandates.  

That bill ran into trouble when the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and health care systems opposed it. While there was a petition to force it to the floor, it went nowhere. The House eventually passed a bill to grant exemptions from COVID vaccines mandates for almost anyone who wants them, and to also ban public and private entries from setting up their own COVID vaccines mandates. But Republican Senate President Matt Huffman had said he was opposed to telling businesses how to run their operations, so the bill’s future seems uncertain. A group of people who oppose all vaccine mandates have started the process to put the issue before Ohio voters next year. 

Lawmakers also passed other bills to distribute billions in federal COVID relief money. They also put into the budget a provision to forgive fines racked up by bars that repeatedly violated COVID rules, but DeWine vetoed that. 

“For us to turn around and right now and the few who had to be cited by our liquor control agents, to say to them there’s no consequences for what you did - that would simply not be right. It would send a horrible, horrible, horrible message.” 

As 2021 comes to an end, COVID is spiking again, rivaling some of the highest levels of this pandemic. And health officials fear with new variants coming on the scene, there won’t be any end to it soon.