Mike DeWine
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine speaks during an interview at the Governor's Residence in Columbus, Ohio on December 13, 2019. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

At first, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine appeared to be one of the few sane Republicans in the fight against COVID-19. But a closer look reveals that his failures are as clear as the pandemic that continues to ravage his state. Despite garnering national attention for his strong early actions, and his relentless national promotion of a $5 million state vaccination lottery, however, it is clear that the governor is more committed to public relations and political neutrality rather than effective policy or governance.

In the spring of 2020, DeWine responded to the pandemic strongly. His daily press conferences were memorable because of the knowledge and articulateness of the recently appointed director of the Ohio Department of Health, Amy Acton. DeWine was physically present, but Acton ran the show, in popular daily appearances and in crafting and enacting responsible mandates to limit the spread of the “first wave” of the outbreak from March through June 2020.

Closely following the emerging science, Ohio was briefly a national leader in partial lockdowns, including school and business closures, restrictions on gatherings, and the imposition of mask mandates. Despite loud right-wing condemnation and sparsely attended armed protests, these measures were largely successful and popular.

Then, right-wing opposition grew, as Brian Alexander has documented in the Monthly. Republicans who control the Ohio statehouse refused to recognize the governor’s mandates on masking and social distancing. Soon, aggressive and threatening groups gathered at the Capitol and at Acton’s home to protest the state’s COVID policies. The barely contained demonstrations at her home were personal—spewing anti-Semitic and sexist venom—as well as political. They violated the boundaries of legitimate political protests, and Acton resigned in mid-June.

After Acton’s departure, DeWine became easily influenced by the right wing’s war on public health. In both actions and inactions, he tacitly abandoned science and refused to advance responsible public policies. In August 2020, he offered the position to a public health leader in South Carolina but failed to disclose the circumstances of Acton’s departure. After initially accepting the directorship, Joan Duwve withdrew after learning the conditions under which Acton had left office.

The months-long absence of leadership at the Department of Health limited the state’s ability to respond for the remainder of the pandemic. DeWine then named Bruce Vanderhoff, formerly a chief administrator at the private hospital corporation OhioHealth, as the agency’s director. In that role, he has not performed anywhere near the level of Acton. And last March, as the Delta variant began to spread, Vanderhoff stated without hesitation—and in direct contradiction to national public health officials—“I’m not overly worried about the Delta variant.”

Worse yet, under Vanderhoff’s medical advice, Ohio did little genetic sequencing, insufficient testing, and poor data gathering and reporting. Flawed reporting of nursing home cases and deaths is especially noteworthy, but the daily updating of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths by age and geographic location has been inconsistent. Only the nursing home failures have been acknowledged. Without adequate genetic testing, the state has had no accurate gauge of the arrival of new strains and their penetration, nor of the retreat of older variants. Statewide coordination of health efforts remains inadequate.

Testing has not been sufficient to meet statewide needs, and results have never been regularly and reliably reported. This deficiency represented a major failure during the months in which Ohio had a baseline case rate of 50 cases per 100,000 people, when the state changed official policies and withdrew key mandates, such as indoor mask wearing.

The DeWine-Vanderhoff partnership has contributed to Ohio’s above-average case rate and deaths per capita and below-average rate of vaccinations. In mid-October, The Columbus Dispatch reported that only four states were “more dangerous for COVID-19 than Ohio.” Ohio residents have to consult national databases to see comparative statistics; neither the state nor most of its media report them regularly. (The best sources for daily and cumulative Ohio data are the online databases of the CDC, The New York Times, and Johns Hopkins University.)

DeWine, for his part, makes vague statements that seem intended to keep him in a neutral position. He won’t publicly condemn the legislators who are blocking measures to control the coronavirus. Yet the legislature doesn’t show him the same respect; it passed a bill that permits them to override the governor’s mandates and remove his ability to veto any state bill.

Now, with the announcement of a Republican gubernatorial primary challenge from Jim Renacci, a former representative who is farther to the right ideologically, DeWine has shifted from discreetly not endorsing mandates to flat-out opposing them.

Unscientific sloganeering has been the capstone of DeWine’s policy failures. This is seen best in the campaign of the Vax-a-Million state lottery, in which the state awarded $1 million in gifts and scholarships to vaccinated individuals. DeWine published a self-promoting guest essay in The New York Times, bragging about the program before it was completed.

Only the DeWine administration claimed that Vax-a-Million was a success. According to a medical research analysis from the Boston University School of Medicine, vaccination rates increased noticeably in the first week—but not thereafter.

Vax-a-Million’s failures included offering equal rewards for the previously vaccinated and the unvaccinated, thus reducing the incentive and not targeting the necessary population. By relying on individual registration by computer or telephone, the program discriminated against people who lacked connections to information systems, mainly the poor and the elderly. And it wasted valuable resources that would have been better spent on more 24-hour vaccination clinics, mobile clinics, and better public education campaigns.

By September, all of Ohio’s 88 counties had entered the high-risk category. DeWine’s response to President Biden’s September 8 series of new mandates was telling: “I think the president made a mistake. I don’t think he should’ve done this. It clouds the issue, and we’re going to now be talking about a federal mandate, which no one likes, instead of talking about, ‘Look, here’s the science.’” (“Science,” of course, that DeWine has been ignoring for months.)

Now, as the Delta and Omicron variants combine their impact, the deadly results rise daily. By December 21, Ohio had broken its record for daily cases. DeWine ordered 1,050 National Guard troops to assist the state’s overwhelmed hospitals, which is a good thing—but not enough to make up for his inadequate response to the pandemic.

Harvey J. Graff

Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of numerous books on social history, including The Dallas Myth.