Collecting a specimen

Healthcare workers collect place a cotton swab into a sanitary tube following a drive-through test at the Ontario testing site that was held on April 29.


Meeting metrics to reopen Malheur County, and particularly the schools, is a major focus for the Malheur County Health Department and the county’s COVID-19 task force. There are multiple factors that could help the county reach the numbers needed to open, says Sarah Poe, director of the health department. This includes such factors as pulling some numbers out of the county’s totals and more testing, she says.

One thing that Poe has been working to pull out of the county’s case rate is cases within Snake River Correctional Institution and congregate care settings.

“The state has assured us to move metrics and reopen schools, those can be taken out because they amount to so many [of Malheur County’s total cases],” Poe said.

She said her aim is to be more clear with the data that is being presented on the health department’s COVID tracking page on its website. Poe said all the information currently posted on the page will remain, including the total case count. However, now it will include a breakout line below that will show the numbers in congregate care settings and SRCI, as well as the community spread with those numbers removed.

Poe said her goal is to be as transparent as possible in their reporting, and they are aware that a number of people are looking at the page very closely.

“I get a lot of questions about whether SRCI cases are holding us in Phase 1 [or Oregon’s reopening plan], and that’s not true,” she said, adding that the governor has assured her the prison and congregate care numbers can be pulled out of the totals.

That can’t be done, however, until the county petitions such a move, “but we’re just not there,” Poe says.

If the local metrics dropped down to 30 cases over three weeks, Poe and Mark Redmond, superintendent of Malheur Education Service District, could ask the Oregon Department of Education to allow schools to reopen.

“Our cases had been going down slightly,” she said. “But they are still significantly over that number.”

According to data from the health department, Malheur County’s total number of new cases in the past three weeks was 363 new cases.

She pointed out that there is a significant number of asymptomatic spread in areas such as Hermiston, prisons in Idaho and as shown in mass testing at congregate care.

“We’re looking at between 40% and 70% of positives are asymptomatic,” Poe said. “That’s what complicates this so much, people could honestly not know they have an infection.”

This is the primary reason, she said, that people need to keep social distancing and wearing masks.

More testing matters, too

“We feel strongly that we need to have a lot more testing, and that is really a way we could get out of this,” Poe said.

Poe says testing for COVID is a “failed national strategy, but it is improving.” She pointed out that Hong Kong just tested 1.7 million citizens. According to the South China Morning Post, the effort uncovered 42 total infections (or two per 100,000 people).

She said Gov. Kate Brown told her there is a national supply chain issue and resources nationally requested have not been prioritized to Oregon because the state as a whole has done so well with its overall case rate.

She says anyone with symptoms in Malheur County should get tested, adding that those in high priority groups who are asymptomatic should also be able to get tested.

Work is going on behind the scenes to get more tests, including rapid tests, to Malheur County.

A person who has been “extremely helpful” in that work is Craig Geddes, director of Malheur County Environmental Health and a member of the COVID-19 Task Force.

Poe said they are hopeful for more rapid cheek saliva tests for the area.

Valley Family Health testing, and another drive-up planned

Poe said that Valley Family Health secured a rapid test machine, and that the entity has been doing a lot of testing in our community right now.

“They’re doing a great job,” she said.

Additionally, Malheur County Health Department is gearing up for its next big drive-up testing event on Oct. 14. Poe says it will be at the Malheur County fairgrounds, but that they are doubling the amount of time normally spent at those sites, planning to be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For that event, the state is providing 500 self-swab tests, she said, adding that the process is still accurate.

“We’ll have results within a week,” she said.

There also will be a limited number of flu shots available for Malheur County residents without insurance.

What about the flu and COVID?

“The flu really complicates things,” Poe said about the inevitable approach of the annual season.

As such, she said getting a flu shot is “absolutely a way to fight COVID, because COVID-like symptoms are flu-like symptoms, so being able to reduce the number of people quarantined for symptoms, also reduces the impact on health-care capacity.”

People who get a flu shot may not get the flu or may only get mild symptoms, she said, making COVID symptoms easier to identify among those people.

“I strongly recommend everyone over six months old get a flu shot, and I have not heard anything about shortage in the area,” she said.

For people who want a flu shot but do not have health insurance, she urges them to contact Malheur County Health Department to see about one of the several programs available which help get vaccines to people without insurance, including Vaccine for Kids, which is free for anyone 18 and younger.

“We never want ability to pay to impact your ability to protect yourself from communicable diseases,” Poe said.

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