COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After months of reliable decline, COVID-19 cases in Ohio are slowly increasing in July, as the trend affixes itself to health experts’ worries of new outbreaks caused by low vaccination rates and a quickly spreading new variant of the virus.

As of Friday, Ohio’s rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days is 29.16, according to NBC4’s analysis. You may remember this metric as the one which had to get below 50 per 100,000 for state health orders to lift.

That rate had been declining since mid-April, but it started ticking back up after July 3, when the rate bottomed out at 23.13 per 100,000. The current rate, 29.16 per 100,000, is the highest since June 20.

Daily case increases reported by the Ohio Department of Health – as opposed to the backdated counts above – are ticking up, too. After multiple days of fewer than 200 cases in late June, Ohio has seen four July days over 400 cases, including the past three days.

The 547 coronavirus cases ODH reported on Thursday marked the fourth straight day with an increase over the previous day’s cases (224, 344, 407, 547). The last time that happened was more than two months ago, May 2-5.

“According to the CDC, current data suggests that 99.5% of COVID-19 in the United States has occurred among unvaccinated people,” ODH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Wednesday. “And experience in the UK also suggests that those who are younger than 50 may now be more than twice as likely to be infected.”

Vanderhoff and Dr. Andrew Thomas, Chief Clinical Officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, held a briefing to discuss the increase of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

Delta, which is 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant (which is 50% more transmissible than the original COVID-19), is on pace to become the dominant strain of the virus, Vanderhoff said.

“The difference for the Delta variant,” Thomas said, “is it takes less of the virus going from my mouth or my nose to yours, to potentially infect you.”

Delta made up just 1.9% of ODH’s sequencing samples from May 23 to June 5, Vanderhoff noted, but it was 15% of samples from June 6-19, the latest reliable snapshot.

“It appears that communities with low vaccination rates,” Vanderhoff said, “are at particular risk of what have been called ‘hyper local outbreaks,’ concentrating the devastating impact of this disease in those communities.”

Butler County, a mostly suburban county of more than 380,000 people north of Cincinnati, is recovering from being listed as a COVID-19 “hotspot” by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC COVID hotspot map July 16
A map shows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s counties of concern for COVID-19 outbreaks, published July 16, 2021. (CDC)

After being considered a hotspot last week, the CDC’s latest report shows Butler County’s “high or moderate burden” is starting to resolve. But outbreaks have been much worse in other parts of the country.

“The lesson I think comes to us from Missouri,” Vanderhoff said, where “a very severe outbreak” driven by Delta is “disproportionately impacting communities with low vaccination rates.”

Cases in Missouri have jumped to their highest level since January. Just under 46% of Missouri’s population has started vaccination.

In Ohio, 48.36% of people have started vaccination as of Friday, placing the state in the bottom third of the country. The nationwide vaccination rate is 55.8%, according to the CDC.

County vaccination rates in Ohio range from Delaware County’s 62.68% — one of 13 counties over 50% — to Holmes County’s 15.39%. Forty-eight of 88 counties have vaccinations rates under 40%.

RankCountyVaccination Started
Data: Ohio Dept. of Health, July 16, 2021

“The reality is we now have two Ohios,” Vanderhoff said, “an Ohio that is vaccinated and protected on the one hand, and an Ohio that is unvaccinated and vulnerable to Delta on the other.”

The Buckeye State’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases does not yet seem to be nudging public policy. Gov. Mike DeWine said Friday he does not plan to reissue a face covering order. Both Vanderhoff and Thomas told reporters they recommend unvaccinated people wear masks in crowded public settings.

To encourage more vaccinations, DeWine plans to roll out a new incentive program similar to the Vax-A-Million lottery but likely with smaller prizes.

“Remember,” Vanderhoff said, “COVID-19 is now a vaccine preventable illness, and not being fully vaccinated puts you at risk. The best thing any of us can do to protect ourselves and those around us is to choose to be vaccinated.”