For most of January and February, as the coronavirus that has now afflicted nearly 1.1mn people and killed more than 55,000 worldwide spread from the Wuhan province of China through Asia and ultimately to the rest of the world, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine was quietly receiving frequent updates from the state’s Department of Health Director, Amy Acton and making preparations.
The virus wouldn’t officially pierce the borders of Mr DeWine’s state until 9 March.
But on 3 March — nearly a week before the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ohio — Mr DeWine, a first-term Republican, took the preventive step of securing a court order to bar spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival from 5-8 March.
The festival draws more than 60,000 people from at least 80 different countries to the state capital of Columbus each year for a series of bodybuilding and strongman competitions. It was expected to rake in an estimated $53m for the local economy this year.
The governor’s closure of the festival to spectators was the first action of its kind in the US.
“That was really the first time that we were forced to make a decision,” Mr DeWine said in an interview with The Independent this week. “Things just kind of evolved from there.”
By 15 March, much of the state had shut down in-person meeting places, from schools and universities, to bars, restaurants, and sporting events.
Ohio was on lockdown.
Acting on instinct
If he’s not casting praise on others such as Ms Acton, Mr DeWine, 73, credits his swift, aggressive approach to the coronavirus crisis to a political “instinct” honed by more than four decades in public service.
His political resume includes stints as a state senator, a US House member, a US senator, Ohio attorney general, and lieutenant governor.
He has learned to trust his “gut” above all else, he said, a statement that might usually cause alarm because it tends to mean a politician is going with what he “feels” is right, data and empirical evidence be damned.
But here’s what Mr DeWine’s gut’s been telling him: Gather information from your health experts. Lean on Ms Acton. Surround yourself with doctors. Trust science.
It’s difficult not to draw a contrast between Mr DeWine’s response to the health crisis and the national response led by Donald Trump, who as recently as last Friday told Americans they could refer to the coronavirus as “a flu” or a germ.
It's not as though Mr Trump lacks the same resources as Mr DeWine.
If Mr DeWine has Acton, Mr Trump has Dr Anthony Fauci.
The difference between the two is DeWine has actually listened to his health guru from the start.
Trump, for weeks, tuned out Fauci’s pleas for people to stay home, for businesses to close. Instead, the president opted to heed the advice of his more money-minded aides warning of economic disaster while Dr Fauci, whose communications are being handled by Vice President Mike Pence’s office, struck out on a lonely crusade to inform the public what the president ought to have been telling it.
Mr DeWine, ever the tactful politician, has so far refused to directly criticize the president or his fellow GOP governors who’ve taken longer to wrap their heads around the crisis.
“I'm not comparing myself to other governors because every governor's got a different situation,” he said.
But how can one not make comparisons between Republican governors when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis didn’t institute a stay-at-home order that went into effect until Friday?
Or when, one state to the north, Georgia GOP Governor Brian Kemp revealed Thursday he just found out coronavirus could be transmitted by people who weren’t showing symptoms of Covid-19, which American health experts have been saying publicly for months?
Mr DeWine indicated to The Independent that a healthy dose of humility — that is, personally acknowledging past mistakes he has made in public office — has helped him respond decisively to the coronavirus crisis.
Most of those mistakes were made when he hadn’t been thorough enough gathering information before making a policy decision, he says. Since he realized in January that coronavirus could one day reach his state, Mr DeWine has read as much as he could about past pandemics, reached out to statisticians to create models of contagion, put together a panel of 14 doctors to brief him on the latest about coronavirus and hospitals’ lagging resources.
He spent nearly a minute on the phone with The Independent this week outlining the deadly consequences for Philadelphia in 1918 of delaying its response to the influenza pandemic two weeks after the city of St Louis took its first steps.
“If you don't make decisions early, it’s a problem,” he said.
The challenge isn’t over for Ohio, which faces similar hurdles as other states.
Mr DeWine’s top priority right now is getting the right medical equipment — hospital beds, ventilators, masks — to frontline workers and hospitals as cases of Covid-19 continue to mount.
That’s proving difficult in Ohio and across the country given the medical supply chain issues in the US, where companies have outsourced their manufacturing operations to places with cheaper labor costs such as China and India.
And while Mr Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce medical supplies on a national level, governors don’t have any such tool at their disposal.
“We're asking them,” Mr DeWine said.
The governor’s office issued two public appeals to companies earlier this week to begin producing essential medical and protective equipment to fight the pandemic. More than 300 companies have responded asking how they can harness their means of production for the effort.
“They're doing it because it's the right thing to do,” Mr DeWine said.
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