Along with announcing a goal of vaccinating 70% of Oregonians, age 16 and older to reopen the economy, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced new county risk levels. For now, Malheur County will remain at “high risk,” as it pertains to COVID-19, and the vaccination rate remains lower than the state’s overall goal and new targets set for counties to begin to reopen.
There were a total of 64 new cases in the county from April 25 to May 8, according to metrics released from the Oregon Health Authority on Monday. This is up from 37 cases from April 18 to May 1. Additionally test positivity was put at 6%.
“We are celebrating about 2 million people who have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine,” Brown said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
It looks like the state has crossed the tipping point of the fourth surge of the virus, she said.
Once the 70% goal has been reached most of the risk level restrictions will be lifted.
“I’m confident we can reach that in June,” Brown said.
“We can’t pretend the pandemic is over,” said State Epidemiologist Pat Allen.
However, he did note the progress being made. Of the nearly 1.995 million people vaccinated in all locations, 504,456 were in progress to get all their shots and about 1.490 million people have completed the series.
After reaching the 70% level, the state will still require the use of masks and social distancing but most other health and safety requirements will be lifted, Brown said
‘Thousands need to be vaccinated’
In addition to the statewide vaccine goal, Brown set targets for counties, which will also help get them away from restrictions.
If a county reaches 65% vaccination rate among those age 16 and older for at least one dose, and presents a plan to provide a plan to close equity gaps, it can be put at the lower risk level as early at May 21, Brown said. Brown said that counties will be provided state resources toward reaching that goal.
Two counties, Benton and Hood River, have already reached 65%, four are above 60% and five are above 55%, according to information from the Malheur County Health Department.
However, according to a graph shown by Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen, Malheur County is at 32%, which is one of the lowest rates in the state. Even if numbers of non-residents receiving vaccines locally are factored in, it’s still not enough to “hit the target,” according to a news release from the health department.
“Best case is that 39% of our eligible population has received at least one dose of vaccine,” Sarah Poe, director of the agency, said in the news release. “That means we still have thousands of people who need to be vaccinated.”
As to whether it is realistic that Malheur County might reach that goal by May 21 or whether metrics are available that may indicate if or when the county, Erika Harmon, public information officer for the health department had the following to say.
“We haven’t calculated a vaccination growth rate but we are a long way off from reaching 65% of Malheur County’s eligible population vaccinated. We’ll need to see a notable increase in the local vaccine rate to achieve that. We are hopeful that eligibility opening up to people ages 12-15 will help us get there,” she wrote in an email this morning. “Again, we haven’t calculated the rate but we will be working on our plan for closing the vaccine equity gap, which will include data and goals for moving forward. We will share the details when they become available.”
Poe also replied by email saying, “We can’t give you a date because we don’t have comparative data, especially with the increase in eligibility coming. We anticipate vaccine to be available for ages 12 and up later this week and that would significantly increase the number of people in the county who are eligible, so it’s difficult to compare rates when we will have many people who have been waiting to be eligible soon able to be protected by the vaccine,” she said.
Furthermore, “It is absolutely realistic” that the county could reach the target of 65%, Poe said.
“Two things need to happen: we are working with the state and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to have the vaccines Malheur County residents have received in Idaho be counted in the Oregon system. The second is that everyone eligible in the county should protect themselves and their loved ones with one of the three safe, effective, and free COVID-19 vaccines available in our community. This will save lives, reduce outbreaks, and get our county into the lower risk level sooner.”
COVID-19-related deaths are also rising locally, according to the news release from the health department. Four people have died since mid-April: a female in her 50s, a female in her 80s, a male in his 60s, and a male in his 80s, it states.
The agency states that school outbreaks comprise the majority of cases locally, however the sporadic infection rate remains.
“We have several new outbreaks and severe cases in the last few weeks,” Poe said in her email. “If we want to put the pandemic behind us, we have to be protected as a community with immunization, just like we are from many other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Vaccine clinics continue
In addition to a host of health-care providers and pharmacies which are offering the COVID-19 vaccine, the health department continues to offer weekly clinics on Thursdays at Four Rivers Cultural Center.
For the month of May, those clinics are from 9 a.m. to noon each Thursday, except for May 27, when the clinic will remain open until 7 p.m.
Those clinics have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine available for anyone age 18 and older as well as second doses of Moderna vaccine for those who received them about a month ago. For this Thursday’s clinic, second doses will be available to anyone who received their first does at the Cultural Center on April 15 or at the FEMA vaccination event held at the Malheur County fairgrounds, April 16-19.
The Cultural Center is at 676 S.W. Fifth Ave., in Ontario, and attendees are asked to use the parking lot between the center and TVCC’s Weese Building, then enter through the entrance near the theater.
Masks are required.