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 — With a “huge escalation” of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 cases over the last couple of weeks throughout the Western Treasure Valley, preventing further spread is a major focus by local and state health authorities, and in Malheur County a headquarters is being set up for contact tracing.

As of this morning, Malheur County has 107 positive cases — six more than Monday — and those are just the cases that have been discovered.

“We very likely have very many, many more cases than have likely been identified,” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department during a phone interview on Monday afternoon.

Referencing an outbreak in La Grande that was tracked to large gatherings at a church there, Poe said the rising numbers in Malheur County are “more worrisome,” as they are linked to community spread and not a single incident. As such, she says, “now is the time to take the guidance seriously.”

The social distancing guidelines have been in place for a couple months now and include staying at home or quarantining if ill or if having been exposed to someone who has, keeping 6 feet of physical distance between yourself and others from outside your immediate household, and wearing face coverings in public — which, as of Wednesday, becomes a statewide mandate for anyone entering indoor public spaces.

When it comes to masks, Poe said she is still answering questions about how effective the masks are and health officials are “dealing with a lot of misinformation still.”

“The evidence on masks isn’t really debatable,” she said. “It reduces the risk and that’s what we’re looking for. If everyone wears a mask, it still would make a significant impact [in reducing the spread of the virus].”

In having anecdotal conversations about contact tracing with nursing staff, Poe said they have found that the virus easily spreads to people who failed to wear a mask, but not to those who do. And when both parties are wearing a mask, it “really cuts down on respiratory droplets coming out of the mouth,” she says.

Citizens who support the reopening of businesses are urged to take measures to protect workers there from exposure, as potential quarantines could end up shutting down a business.

“We don’t shut the business down,” Poe emphasized. “But if multiple people are quarantining who run the business, it can be really hard to run a business.”

The health department is working on surveillance testing, several times a week at local facilities. Due to privacy laws, Poe cannot name those facilities, however, she did say they were congregate care settings and food processing facilities. In those scenarios, she says, nurses and screeners in full personal protective equipment go in and do testing one person at a time, sometimes testing everyone on a shift.

‘Widespread community spread’

“I’m telling you, we have multiple cases in each of our larger towns with population over 1,000),” Poe said. “Nyssa, Vale and Ontario and smaller towns are seeing rising case counts without a single large outbreak to point to. It is widespread community spread.”

Of the cases that have been discovered in Malheur County, only 41 individuals have recovered.

“There are a lot of people who are sick or isolated in our community right now. We ask that all people who have positive cases or symptoms are isolating at home and that all close contacts are following quarantine guidelines, meaning staying home even if not showing symptoms,” she said. “We realize that’s a lot of people in our community right now.”

The suggested quarantine time is 14 days for individuals who have tested positive, who are returning from areas where the virus is widespread, or those who have come into contact with a positive case, according to the Oregon Health Authority. While quarantined, individuals should check their temperature twice daily, avoid places where many people gather, stay off public transportation and contact a health-care provider if symptoms such as fever, cough or trouble breathing develop.

Of utmost importance, Poe says, is that out-of-state visitors are wearing masks, too.

“I’m a little concerned about making sure all the Idahoans who are coming into our county are wearing a mask,” she said. “On any given day, there can be more people in Malheur County who live in Idaho than those who live in Oregon.”

Both workforce and dispensaries were pointed to as some of the reasons for this.

Contact tracing gets headquarters

When asked how keeping up with contact tracing requirements is going, Poe said many adjustments are being made to keep up with the workload, and noted that headquarters are going to be moved into Four Rivers Cultural Center this week.

One positive COVID-19 case equates to 20 hours of contact tracing. With 50 new cases in a short period of time, that’s 1,000 hours spread out over two weeks, she said.

“And over that time you have more cases. It is time-consuming work, and it is really important that people answer their phone and work with us,” she said. “This is about making sure our community is safe and making sure people have what they need to quarantine.”

Initially, the county had five contact tracers and that number will grow six-fold by the end of the week.

“We will have nearly thirty people trained by the end of this week,” Poe said, adding that some of these people are staff from other county departments who have volunteered to help.

Being at the Cultural Center will ensure they have enough room to have about 15 people at a time there who will be wearing masks and following social distance measures. Work will be done early, late, on weekends and whenever people are available.

In addition, while this week’s appointments at the health department will not be changed, Poe says that in moving forward the department will be “adjusting a lot of programs to move staff toward contact tracing.”

Leslie Thompson is the editor at The Argus Observer. She can be reached at (541) 823-4818 or by emailing To comment on this story, go to

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