COVID-19 cases and deaths are ramping up again locally, which means Malheur County will once again move up a level in the state’s four-tier risk assessment system, according to Gov. Kate Brown, who made the announcement on Tuesday afternoon.
Effective Friday, Malheur County will join 14 other counties in returning to the “high risk” level, once again tightening restrictions as it relates to the spread of the virus under the state’s risk assessment system.
Data used for the coming change were collected from April 18 thru May 1 and included three deaths and 35 new cases, according to a news release from the Malheur County Health Department on Tuesday evening. Additionally, there have been an additional 14 cases from Sunday to Tuesday.
Due to the rise in case numbers, Craig Geddes, director of Environmental Health for the county, reminded people that the virus continues to “threaten not only lives but livelihoods.”
“The current trend is extremely concerning. If our cases continue to climb and our vaccination rates continue to be low, we will continue to experience this kind of loss,” he said. “We need everyone to take this seriously – continue to follow precautions and get vaccinated.”
Overall there are 24 counties in this “high risk” level, with four in “moderate” and eight in “lower” and no counties in “extreme,” the latter of which is a stark change from changes taking place on April 30, which put 15 counties into that risk level.
Brown said the statewide seven-day average increase for hospitalizations related to COVID had dropped below 15% and was no longer needed. She added a note of caution that “Oregon is not out of the woods yet,” however, also stated that her expectation was “we will not return to extreme risk again for the duration of this pandemic.”
Additionally, Brown noted that the Biden-Harris administration was planning to reallocate unused vaccines to states that need them, and that Oregon will ask for the maximum allowed. Continuing vaccinations is the best path to “staying on track to fully reopen our economy by the end of June,” she said.
The health department points out that Malheur County’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is the second-lowest in the state, behind Umatilla County. As of Monday, 24.8% of Malheur County residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 20.9% have completed the series, meaning they have received a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of either Moderna or Pfizer. Respective statewide averages are 42.9% and 30.0%.
What are ‘high risk’ restrictions?
The third level of the state’s risk assessment system still allows indoor customers at eating and drinking establishments, which must close at 11 p.m. However, occupancy shrinks down to 25% or 50 people, whichever is smaller, and to 120 people for outdoor dining. Seating is limited to six people from no more than two households per table.
Other restrictions, follow.
• Indoor and outdoor shopping centers and malls, 50% occupancy with curbside pick-up encouraged;
• Indoor entertainment establishments, 25% occupancy or 50 people, whichever is smaller, with closing time at 11 p.m. Outdoor entertainment establishments are limited to a maximum of 15% capacity with the same closing time;
• Indoor recreation & fitness establishments, 25% occupancy or 50 people, whichever is smaller; outdoor is 15% capacity;
• Retail stores, 50% maximum capacity with curbside pick-up encouraged;
• Social and at-home gatherings indoors are limited to a maximum of six people with a recommended limit of 2 households; outdoor is a maximum of eight people.
• For faith-based institutions, the recommended maximum indoor capacity is 25% of occupancy or 150 people, whichever is smaller; outdoor is 200 people maximum.
‘Far more serious damage than benefit’
Brown’s decision to move 15 counties into the “extreme” level on April 30 caused much outcry from local, state and federal lawmakers, including state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale and who represents Senate District 30, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane and who represents House District 60, both of which include Malheur County. They penned a letter to Brown and Health Authority Director Patrick Allen saying “enough is enough” and that people had been following stringent protocols.
Joining the outcry most recently, was Oregon’s U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, calling on Brown to reverse her decision from the prior week, and focus on vaccinations instead.
“In the normal course, as a United States Representative, I would not enter debates regarding state-level politics,” he wrote in a news release on Monday. “However, the Governor’s most recent response to the COVID-19 situation is not only historically broad in impact, but an action that causes far more serious damage than benefit.”
Moreover, he said, OHA had recently invited public input from Oregon’s congressional delegation. The huge lockdowns have “caused incredible frustration for many,” Bentz said. He noted that Brown recently commended Oregonians for having “among the lowest COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and deaths in the nation,” and that she credited citizens’ actions.
Additionally, he said her proposed “$20 million safety net for those harmed by this most recent lockdown is woefully inadequate for those Oregon businesses struggling to survive. I believe Oregon must reopen and stay open.”