Another 1,250 Ohio National Guard troops have been called up to support hospitals as the state set a record for the total number COVID-19 hospitalizations during the pandemic, Gov. Mike DeWine announced.

Hospitals around Ohio are pleading with school superintendents, administrators and school boards to implement masking requirements when students return from holiday break.

The state reported more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases and nearly 600 hospitalizations Wednesday; both records. DeWine called up more than 1,000 guard members in mid-December to help with growing strain on hospitals.

“Today, we have more Ohioans with COVID in the hospital than any other time during the pandemic,” DeWine said. “This is not something we take lightly. ... We are asking [troops] to leave their families, their jobs and homes. This is a huge sacrifice.”

DeWine said hospitals in the northern part of the state have been particularly hard hit, especially in the Cleveland area, where one in three patients are COVID-19 positive, according to the Ohio Hospital Associations.

Hospitals already have postponed elective surgeries.

“The hospital systems are under significant stress in northern Ohio,” said Dr. Robert Wyllie, chief medical operations officer at the Cleveland Clinic. “We are running 2,000 tests a day. Let me tell you about those tests: 36% of the people going into the Walker Center for testing are testing positive for COVID.”

About 460 guard members already have been deployed in the Cleveland area, with more than 160 in the Toledo area and 100 in Columbus area. Smaller numbers are expected to be deployed in the coming days in Mansfield, Dayton and Lima to support hospitals. Troops also are supporting testing sites in Cleveland and Akron.

“I just want everybody to be able to walk a mile in my shoes and kind of understand as a critical care nurse, what I am seeing when I am coming into work. It is beyond difficult,” said Jennifer Hollis, a critical care nurse at Riverside Hospital in Columbus. “Our beds are full. There is nowhere else to go, and we are just as short-staffed as everyone else is seeing as well. … We are tired, we are frustrated, and we want the best for all of our patients.”

The Ohio Hospital Association and the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association sent a letter to school leaders statewide, saying a new masking requirement would limit the community spread of COVID-19 and keep students in school.

Many schools abandoned mask mandates in the fall when case numbers fell and pressure mounted from parents who opposed mandates.