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WKSU is looking for the answers to the questions you have about Ohio in a project we call "OH Really?" It's an initiative that makes you part of the news gathering process.

Listeners Ask About Unemployment, Isolation and Baby Deliveries During Coronavirus Pandemic

photo of ODJFS website
The ODJFS website includes videos on how to apply for benefits, as well as specific information for people whose employment has been impacted by the pandemic.

With nonessential businesses closed and much of Ohio shut down due to COVID-19, a lot of people are out of work right now. Last week in Ohio, 226,000 people filed applications to receive unemployment benefits. It’s not an easy task because the system has been overwhelmed.

For those who’ve been laid off, filing for unemployment benefits has been a frustration. When we called the state hotline, there was no one available to answer and the call ended with a suggestion to try again later or visit the state's unemployment website

Listener Rich Zimmerman says he's called as many as ten times a day and has even had trouble getting a response using the website’s chat function.

Listener Susan Behm wants the state to hire more help. Lt. Governor Jon Husted says they are.

“We’re up to 1,000 people now who are working there, working on everything from the phones to processing claims, adding people all the time," Husted said. "Someone has to be trained to be able to do this. There’s a process for following the federal and state laws to do this. We’ve ramped up faster than I even thought we could. So that is happening.”

But he also asks for some understanding about the volume of claims. Since this began, close to 700,000 Ohioans have filed for unemployment benefits.

“We’re having more in a month than we would see over the course of years and the system just wasn’t built for that. And so we’re trying to build a system while serving people all at the same time," Husted said. He encourages patience.

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kim Hall says benefits will be retroactive to when a person became eligible. "All eligible Ohioans will receive their unemployment benefits and any delays in processing claims will not reduce the amount received," Hall said during the governor's daily briefing last week. 

But the state does have a minimum earnings threshold to qualify for unemployment benefits and listener James Krein wonders what one can do if deemed "monetarily ineligible." There is the possibility of help from the federal stimulus bill approved by Congress. Senator Sherrod Brown says nearly everyone should be eligible for those benefits.

"They will get at least $600 a week if they qualify and almost everybody does. In all those categories—part time workers, people whose hours have been cut back, gig workers, self-employed workers," Brown said.

But you can’t yet apply for that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because Ohio is still working to get the system set up. ODJFS director Hall says they’re working on it. "Our planning is underway and moving rapidly to build the new system for self-employed claimants and other groups that the federal government has granted expanded eligibility." Once it is up and running those benefits are retroactive to January 27 and run for 39 weeks.

In the meantime, what to do? Senator Brown suggests, "First of all you go to your landlord and your bank and I think they will be understanding for a few weeks or at least for a couple of weeks until these checks arrive. The $1,200 check that everybody’s supposed to get should be in people’s hands now. The Trump administration has had time to know they were going to be doing this. And the unemployment checks should be getting out sooner rather than later."

The website unemployment.ohio.gov has a list of 40 questions offering assistance. It also has a 10-point list of the things you need to have ready when you file, such as your driver’s license and social security numbers for you and your dependents.

A series of informational videos on filing for unemployment are here. A help guide is here, and a benefits calculator is available at this link.

OH Really and questions on coronavirus

Keeping masks clean
This week, with so many people making their own masks, we’ve been getting questions about how to sterilize those masks. And this is about the ones you can sew at home from old cotton shirts or other materials. Amy Buller asks if you can sterilize them by putting them in the oven?

Summit County Public Health actually weighed-in on this for us, saying the best way to clean a cloth mask is to put it in the washing machine with detergent and warm water. Then dry in the dryer. Since laundry detergent is a soap product, it’s very effective in killing the virus.

That brings up another question, from David Pearson. He wants to know if hand-washing is so effective because the virus membrane is lipid-based. And the answer is, “yes.” The soap breaks down the fat membrane and "kills" the virus.

Dining in: now or later?
Wendy Van Ittersum asks what the best way is to help restaurants right now; gift cards or carry out?

Homa Moheimani of the Ohio Restaurant Association says, "Gift cards are great; they’re almost like a short-term loan with no interest. But ultimately, they have to pay that back in food. That extra cash can help them weather the storm. Or at least help them get things started again when all of this is over," she said.

“We can’t always order take out, but if you can once a day or once every few days or once a week, that’s going to be really helpful to those owners and operators," Moheimani said. "Because if you think about, most restaurants and most food service places in Ohio are ‘Mom & Pop’ or what we call independent owner-operators. These are your friends, your family, your neighbors, and they’re just doing the best that they can to continue to be that cornerstone in your community. So anything will help.”

Seniors in isolation
Gail Pytel is a senior citizen living alone and submitted a question about the need to address the issue of isolation.

Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda says it's been an understandably difficult time. “I get that the elderly may be particularly stressed out. And we’ve asked repeatedly that perhaps individuals can reach out to those that they know are socially isolated. Try to make some sort of contact. You can talk to your elderly neighbor through their front door glass, just to make sure they’re okay. You can also try to send messages or leave notes and cards. The idea is to take care of everyone in this. It is very difficult to be socially isolated. And we already had many elderly who felt socially isolated. It is imperative that we all reach out to try to help them so that they don’t feel even worse during this time of national crisis.”

And on the other side of the aging spectrum, a few weeks ago, we were asked about a possible baby boom nine months from now since everyone is cooped up at home. And based on the questions we’re getting, maybe some of you are starting to seriously think about that, long-term.

Anthony Gardner asks if there’s a clear understanding of the threats from COVID-19 to a fetus?

The experts at Summit County Public Health say right now, it’s not clear if a pregnant woman with coronavirus can transmit it to her baby. Early on, some data suggested that babies born to moms with the virus did not test positive. But now, the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests transmission during pregnancy could be possible.

Listeners are also wondering about delivering a baby right. Summa has put out information with their procedures: there are minor changes, like offering free parking, but the big one is that no visitors are allowed, however they are allowing one designated support person for pregnant mothers, but they ask that the person minimizes trips in and out of the hospital.

You can ask your question for OH Really? and get the latest information on the pandemic here.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.
A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.