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Ohio health leaders warn of winter respiratory virus surge, obesity concerns ahead of holidays

A patient stands on a scale as a physician measures the weight.
Ohio ranks seventh in the U.S. for adults with obesity, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The Thanksgiving holiday is one week away and state health experts took the opportunity to caution residents during a press conference Thursday about health risks this time of year.

The overall number in respiratory virus cases is down compared to last year, said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health.

"Cases remain minimal in Ohio," Vanderhoff said of flu and respiratory syncytial virus also known as RSV. "And then we are seeing a slight increase in several southeastern states. Likewise, we are starting to see a small increase in cases in Ohio, but like with the flu, this is nothing like what we saw this time last year."

Though respiratory virus cases are down and the summer spike in COVID-19 cases has receded, Vanderhoff warned that an increase is likely this winter.

"History tells us that we will almost certainly see some sort of winter surge in COVID-19," Vanderhoff said, encouraging people to consider vaccines.

Ohio reported a 15% increase in COVID-19 cases from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9 and a less than 1% increase in flu-related outpatient visits the first week of November, according to ODH data.

Vanderhoff also cautioned Ohioans to be mindful of how much they indulge on Thanksgiving.

"Too many of us are struggling with obesity and excess weight and that can have very serious adverse effects on our health," Vanderhoff said, adding that Ohio ranks seventh nationwide in adult obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 38.1% of Ohioans in 2022 were considered obese, which is defined as a body mass index above 30.

In response to Ohio's alarming obesity rate, Vanderhoff's team is creating an Obesity Action Plan to examine which current processes are working and what other states are doing to address obesity.

Dr. Bartolome Burguera, chairman of the Endocrinology & Metabolism Institute at Cleveland Clinic, said there are five key factors in preventing obesity in individuals — nutrition, physical activity, appetite, sleep and stress.

"It's impossible to be successful long-term without touching all of them because the moment you stop doing what has helped you accomplish what you've lost, you will regain the weight," Burguera said.

Vanderhoff said healthier eating and exercise remain the key components to combating weight problems, but he also acknowledged socioeconomic barriers to healthy eating, such as food deserts in underserved areas.

The state has invested in improving access to healthier lifestyles through the Creating Healthy Communities program, Vanderhoff said, noting that 22 counties have received grants focused on healthy eating and exercise. The CDC also awarded Ohio a State Physical Activity and Nutrition grant, which Vanderhoff said aims at expanding produce prescriptions.

"This is exactly what it sounds like — a prescription for produce written by your health care provider who likely has identified health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension that is responsive to your nutrition," Vanderhoff said, adding ODH then attaches funds to be spent on produce.

But Vanderhoff also acknowledged that much more needs to be done in understanding and addressing the obesity problem. He said it's a multifactorial problem that requires a comprehensive approach.

"It certainly begins with the kind of engagement that we have had over the last few years with communities in understanding their challenges and situations, and working together to create environments that make it much easier and much more attainable for people to make good, healthy food decisions as well as incorporate exercise and activity into their everyday lives," Vanderhoff said, noting that his department will continue to work with communities on solutions.

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.