County looks into COVID-19 outbreak

Volunteers and local health-care officials help conduct drive-up testing for COVID-19 at the Malheur County fairgrounds on April 29. The fairgrounds will be host to another round of free testing tomorrow, and again on Aug. 5. Other testing is being regularly held throughout the county on the second and third Wednesdays of the next two months.

ONTARIO — Things are extremely busy for staff at the Malheur County Health Department, as local numbers of positive COVID-19 cases have reached 160 as of Thursday night. To further the load, the department is verifying reports of a local outbreak and results are expected regarding that at some point today, according to health department Director Sarah Poe.

“Today we reported 20 new cases, bringing the total positive case count to 160 and a positive test rate of 8.9%,” wrote health department Director Sarah Poe in an email Thursday night.

“Our highest priority and our biggest concern is protecting the most vulnerable people,” she said during a follow up phone interview this morning.

There are three people hospitalized right now, with two of them being elderly and one in their 50s, according to Poe, and she says her biggest concern is people not taking protective measures seriously.

“It’s really concerning now that we’re seeing people getting sicker,” she said. “We get pushback [on guidance] all time with some people saying, ‘Most people are sick, let everybody have it.”

Guidance includes taking measures such as wearing face-coverings in indoor public spaces, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and disinfecting of commonly touched surfaces, and staying home if sick or having been exposed to someone who is. The problem with trying to “fight against the guidelines,” Poe said, is that while a lot of people who end up with COVID-19 will have mild cases, about 2% of the population will end up with “really severe cases.”

“I don’t live in a community where we just sacrifice 2% of the people because of the inconvenience,” she said, emphasizing that not everybody who is at high risk is able to isolate, due to needs for groceries, pharmaceuticals, etc.

“Our community is interdependent,” Poe said. “We are all connected to someone who has health concerns.”

As such, people who are preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July, which normally means large gatherings, are urged to consider risks and play it safe.

According to the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report, updated on Wednesday, there were 63 cases in Ontario, 19 cases in Nyssa and 15 cases in Vale. Numbers are only publicly reported for zip codes with populations over 1,000, so the other cases are in towns with less than that population throughout the county,” Poe says.

According to her email, the zip-code report shows “an even distribution of cases across our three biggest towns with very similar rates.” In addition, Poe says, there are many cases likely not identified.

With no single source of an outbreak previously identified, health officials “are concerned about how widely COVID-19 has reached across the county through community spread.”

With the rapid spread throughout the Western Treasure Valley, “each of us has a role to play in slowing the spread,” Poe says.

The health department points out several of their latest posts. Among these is how to file a complaint with Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration and a risk level map that shows how severe the spread of COVID-19 is in our community. The latter of these is tallied through state and local dashboards, and currently puts Malheur County among the highest risk levels in the nation.

New changes on investigative guidelines passed down by OHA mean that Malheur County Health Department now has to report to employers in high-risk settings, if one of their employees test positive; for all other employers, they must inform them if at least two of their employees are sick.

The reason the change came down, Poe says, is because sometimes people who test positive for COVID-19 are not compliant and don’t tell employers or follow quarantine guidelines.

“And that’s a huge risk,” Poe says.

Also among the changes is a new rule that for businesses with more than 30 employees, if more than five test positive, it will be released publicly in a report by both state and local health authorities.

Poe emphasized that in our region, which includes Ada County up to Washington and Malheur County, there were 3,000 cases within 100 miles of each other, and that was several days ago.

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