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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

What's Driving the Surge in COVID Deaths in Mahoning County

piccture of coronavirus blood
Mahoning County's COVID-19 deaths are at about 130 deaths per 130,000, significantly higher than four other counties in Ohio with similar populations.

Coronavirus cases continue to surge in Ohio. One area of the state is being particularly hard hit. Mahoning County's death rate from COVID-19 is among the highest in the state. The big question is why? And what does it mean in the long term? That's the focus of a new series of stories coming from Mahoning Matters.

The data that reporter Justin Dennis drew on was compiled by the media collaborative, Your Voice Ohio (which both Mahoning Matters and WKSU are part of). It shows that currently, Mahoning County has about 130 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population.

"What I did was take other counties in Ohio that have a similar population to Mahoning County, about four other counties, which include Warren, Lake, Delaware and Clermont,” Dennis said. “For those other counties, the death rate per 100,000 population was was about 30 or 31.”

What's driving it?

Dennis says early on in the pandemic, Mahoning County led the state in deaths, and there really wasn’t a good answer as to why. With more data now, Dennis said he took a look at other health issues that are considered co-morbidities for COVID-19: “things like whether or not you are elderly, whether or not you have heart or liver disease, diabetes, whether or not you're a smoker, pretty much anything that has an effect on the cardiovascular system also puts you at higher risk from COVID-19.”

Dennis says in looking at some of the data that was provided by Your Voice Ohio, he also supplemented it with 2014 data from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which had released some county level health outcome data. “Liver diseases like cirrhosis, mortality from diabetes or other blood endocrine diseases, prevalence of diabetes," he said. "So when I put them all on a spreadsheet together and put in all those statistics, a trend emerged which was which was again very striking. It showed that Mahoning County was the worst or the second worst, very close to being the worst."

Too soon to know?

For critics who are concerned about whether there’s really enough data to draw these conclusions, Dennis said, “When I went into this, I knew, of course, myself. The correlation is not causation, you know,” and that he wasn't looking to prove anything. “When I showed this to Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauserfrom Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, he was surprised. He was like, well, I haven't seen this data, you know, put out like this. He said this makes sense.”

According to Gonsenhauser, “This is a problem that will persist for Mahoning County long after COVID is gone.” If you're unhealthier, you have a greater risk from COVID-19. He feels that it's because public health has been underfunded or disregarded for decades and for generations. It explains why some communities are much harder hit than others.

Read Justin Dennis' article here.

Andrew Meyer is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.