CLEVELAND, Ohio – The feared spike in new coronavirus cases following Thanksgiving has not occurred, and instead the number of serious cases appears to have leveled off after the dramatic mid-fall surge.

This is based on tracking of day-to-day hospital counts of coronavirus patients, a method which long has been a more reliable gauge of virus trends than the often erratic and incomplete daily case reports.

The number of coronavirus patients occupying hospital beds across Ohio surged by nearly tenfold from 590 on the first day of fall, Sept. 22, to a record 5,234 on Dec. 1, according to daily surveys conducted by the Ohio Hospital Association and reported by the Ohio Department of Health.

The patient count remains at historically high levels, reflecting the continued concern over the spread of the virus in Ohio. It had not reached 5,000 until Nov. 30.

But if there was a surge related to Thanksgiving gatherings, the number of patients would have gone up even more sharply a week to two weeks later, once newly infected people became sick enough to go the hospital.

However, 18 days later through Monday, there was no sign of that happening, at least yet.

In fact, the number of patients reported Monday of 5,157 was below the record count at the beginning of the month.

In comparison, last month the patient count doubled from 1,685 on Nov. 1 to 3,390 by Nov. 15, and continued up sharply to 5,234 on Dec. 1.

Not only does the hospital trend provide a glimpse into the number of serious cases, and concerns over whether hospital capacity is in danger of being reached, from the onset of the virus in the spring it has been the most steady way to track trends.

Early on, younger people were being told not to even get tested if they weren’t sick enough to go to the hospital. Tests were being rationed for the oldest, the sickest and health care workers. Then lately, the daily reports for cases overall at best provided a murky look at the trends.

There was no report on Thanksgiving. For days, the state said reports were incomplete because the health department was overwhelmed. And then on a single day on Dec. 8, Ohio reported 25,721, more than double the record number. But in doing so the state said the number should not be compared to other days because several older cases were added at once and reporting standards changed.

But even with these flaws, the increase in cases did appear to slow. In the six days since that one-day big case report on Dec. 8, the state had reported an average of 10,097 new cases a day, up from previous weeks but less sharply than had been the case through November.

Another piece of evidence is the onset of symptoms for each patient.

These dates estimated by the health department are tied to when people got sick, not when their cases were confirmed. Again, the trend line has leveled out somewhat in recent weeks, instead of shooting up after Thanksgiving.

Onset of coronavirus in Ohio

This graphic shows the rolling seven-day daily average for Ohio coronavirus cases based on the date of onset of symptoms. The last week is not shown because of delays in reporting newer cases. Making the data unclear is the dips shown late in Thanksgiving week, perhaps linked to reporting issues.Rich Exner, cleveland.com

This piece of encouraging news comes with a caveat.

Gov. Mike DeWine on Monday reminded Ohioans that even if the curve is smoothing, it is smoothing at a far higher level than where coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations were at during late summer and early fall.

“This might look like a plateau, we can’t tell that yet,” DeWine said during his coronavirus briefing. ”Even if is plateauing, it is still much, much too high.”

Rich Exner, data analysis editor for cleveland.com, writes about numbers on a variety of topics. Follow on Twitter @RichExner. See other data-related stories at cleveland.com/datacentral.

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