Sarah Poe says ‘confusion around death’ comes from health authority's ‘epidemiological role’ regarding tracking and tracing 

Leslie Thompson

The Argus Observer

ONTARIO — The director of the Malheur County Health Department is clarifying a statement sent Saturday night to news outlets announcing the “first death in Malheur County from COVID-19.” 

While information sent in Saturday’s email said the positive test was reported post-mortem, there was no indication in Poe’s email the cause of death may not have been the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

After receiving multiple calls and emails today from community members about “blatantly printing fake news,” regarding the cause of the death, the Argus reached out to Poe for an explanation.

We’re getting similar feedback,” she replied by email. “Just to be clear, you reporting that the person died and had COVID-19 is not incorrect, and we follow the rules every state must in reporting outcomes for positive cases. … People are really angry, but it is mostly because they are politically opposed to the government response to COVID-19 and they don’t understand the epidemiological role of public health to track and trace communicable diseases.”

As the local health authority, the health department is aiming to “clarify the reporting rules,” which have caused “confusion around the death” as it was reported by Poe.

All COVID-19 cases must be reported with follow up regarding if the person recovered, is still ill, hospitalized, or died. The health department does not determine cause of death, but must report on the outcome of each case. To date in Malheur County, we have 33 people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 33 cases, 28 have recovered and one has died,” Poe wrote. “That means that four people still have active infections.”

However, as stated in her email, although the man’s death was counted as a COVID-19 death because that is the outcome of the case, the health authority “cannot say how the person died,” due to health privacy laws. 

In a Citizens Coalition of Ontario forum initially offered by livestream on May 15 on the City of Ontario’s Facebook page, Poe was asked about statistical data posted on the health department’s website in terms of positive cases of COVID-19.

“We wait to post until we have a lab report in our hands,” said Poe.


Original article posted on June 8 @10:25 a.m.

MALHEUR COUNTY — Malheur County has now seen its first death from the novel coronavirus COVID-19, according to an email late Saturday night from Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department.

The death came the same day as the county entered the second phase of Reopening Oregon, which was approved by Gov. Kate Brown.

The local health authority says the man was in his 70s and that the positive test for the virus was not reported until after he died.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends affected by this death,” reads an email from Poe.

Work has already begun to ensure those who may have come in contact with the man are advised.

“Contact tracers are working diligently to trace and ensure our community remains as safe as possible,” reads the email. “MCHD nurses have started the case investigation and we will release more information about the case when possible.”

The health department has a team of nine individuals working on the contact tracing efforts.

According to the health department’s frequently asked question, “MCHD case investigators are focused on containing the spread of known cases by asking those who have been at high risk of exposure to stay at home for two weeks.” 

In accordance with federal guidelines regarding the pandemic, certain employers will be required to provide two weeks paid sick leave if an employee is quarantined, and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis.

“I appreciate the many efforts that often quietly happen, from organizations and individuals, to serve everyone who lives, works, worships, shops, and plays in Malheur County,” reads Poe’s email. “We are going to get through this more resilient and with deeper relationships. Help us keep those who are most vulnerable safe.”

As a whole, the Western Treasure Valley — which includes Malheur County, Payette County and Weiser in Washington County — has now seen three deaths from COVID-19, with the first two having been in Payette County.

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