Malheur County will finally move to lowest risk level

A line of cars waits for free COVID testing at the Malheur County fairgrounds on Dec. 1, 2020. The site will be home to an OHA/FEMA mobile vaccination unit later this month, in which 2,000 vaccines will be offered over an eight-day period.


COVID-19 cases in Malheur County are low enough now that as of Friday, the county will go into the lowest risk category of four risk levels, ranging from “extreme risk” to “lower risk,” as established by Gov. Kate Brown. This also moves the county out of a two-week caution period.

Malheur County has been in the “moderate risk” level since Feb. 26. Prior to that, the county had been in “extreme risk” restrictions since Nov. 18, 2020; that was meant to be a two-week “pause,” however, Brown extended it indefinitely on Dec. 3.

Moving up and down in categories is based on new case counts and test positivity rate. For Malheur County, from March 21 to April 3, there were 15 new cases, and a 2.9% test positivity rate, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

While the news is encouraging, continued caution is urged by state and local officials.

“We are at a critical moment in this pandemic as we face more contagious variants of COVID-19 taking hold in our communities,” said Brown in a news release.

As such, continuing to wear masks, social distance and stay home when sick, as well as getting the vaccine are “imperative,” she states.

“We recognize all the sacrifices it has taken to get us this far, and we appreciate everyone’s willingness to work together. Please continue to follow guidance so we can keep cases low and Malheur County businesses open,” said Craig Geddes, director of Malheur County Environmental Health in a news release from the Malheur County Health Department.

According to an email from Erika Harmon, more information will be released soon about a mobile vaccination unit hosted by OHA and FEMA. That unit is slated to arrive in Ontario on April 16 and will be staged for eight days at the Malheur County fairgrounds where they will offer 2,000 doses of COVID vaccines.

Relaxing restrictions

Along with the lowest risk category assignment, Malheur County will see a relaxing of restrictions on social activities, including those that impact businesses, churches, events and entertainment, including sports and at-home gatherings. Following are some of those examples, according to information from the health department.

Restaurants and bars can still only have up to 50% capacity, however there are no limits on the maximum number of people, unless it is outdoor dining, which is limited to 300 people. There can be up to eight people per table and establishments must close at midnight.

Other entities which can also have up to 50% capacity with no maximum number of people, include those offering outdoor entertainment, indoor entertainment, indoor recreation and fitness (indoor full-contact sports are still disallowed), and outdoor recreational fitness, where contact sports are allowed.

Like restaurants and bars, indoor entertainment, such as theaters, concert halls and museums must close at midnight.

Occupancy can now be up to 75% at faith-based institutions and entities related to funeral services, including funeral homes, mortuaries and cemeteries, noting that the occupancy for churches is a recommendation only).

People can now have up to 10 people from up to four households at indoor at-home gatherings and for outdoor at-home gatherings, numbers have increased to up to 12 people from unlimited households.

New metric added to determine risk level

Brown, in her news release said that COVID-19 hospitalizations will now be included among the metrics used to determine county risk levels. The risk levels that were determined this week, did include the new metric: COVID-19 positive patients occupying 300 hospital beds or more, and a 15% increase in the seven-day average over the past week.

Those counties meeting “extreme risk” numbers but being assigned high risk due to the “statewide trigger” not being met, include Josephine, Klamath and Tillamook.

The cautionary period, which Malheur County will be out of as of Friday applies to counties facing backward movement, according to Brown’s news release. This Friday, five counties will qualify for that period, including Baker and Columbia which qualify for “extreme risk”; Polk, which qualifies for “high risk”; and Lane and Yamhill, which qualify for “moderate risk.”

There are no counties listed in the “extreme risk” category at this time, as well as 14 in “high risk,” six in “moderate risk” and 16 in “lower risk.”

Grant County joined Malheur County in downgrading to the lowest risk level this week. Of the 16 listed there, three are at risk of jumping into a higher risk level in the coming weeks.

Levels will remain to be reassigned every two weeks, with the first week’s data providing a warning week for counties to prepare of backward movement. As such, the next assignment of levels will be April 20, taking effect on April 23.

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