Malheur County health experts urge folks to wash up, avoid virus myths

Jesse Melendez, maintenance director for the Nyssa School District, uses a cordless handheld sprayer to disinfect surfaces . The district purchased six last year. The equipment is said to now be on back order. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – The recipe to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus hasn’t changed.

Wash your hands. Stay home if you are sick and if you have trouble breathing, call your provider.

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, reiterated those steps Monday and reported there are no cases of the new virus locally.

Poe also said available evidence continues to indicate for most people a bout of the COVID-19 virus would be mild.

[WATCH: Do you know how to wash your hands?]

She also said local residents should seek accurate information – and not rely on rumors – regarding the COVID-19 virus.

 “It is important they have facts from reputable sources. If you hear rumors, speak up and fact check people,” said Poe.

Poe said the best sources of information are the web sites for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oregon Health Authority.

Poe said the steps to avoid the COVID-19 virus are the same as the flu or the common cold.

If sick, she said, people should stay home.


“We really need to focus on prevention. Too often people get sick and they think they are being brave to work through it or maintain their routine but that is putting everyone else at risk around them. The best thing they can do is make sure they are not spreading disease,” said Poe.

Poe said Monday her agency doesn’t face any shortages of supplies or personnel and remains ready to respond to a crisis.

“We do have a plan in place with county emergency preparedness. If there was an outbreak and we needed to respond locally, we do have that plan in place where we can call on other community partners,” said Poe.

Poe said local emergency service agencies can also call on the Eastern Oregon Regional Medical Reserve Corps, a group of doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians and residents based in Baker City.

“We also have been in contact with the Idaho Department of Health Welfare to make sure we coordinate our efforts,” said Poe.

As of Monday, more than 540 cases of the COVID-19 virus were reported in the U.S., including 14 in Oregon.

Gov. Kate Brown declared an emergency Sunday in response to the novel virus. According to the Oregon Health Authority, the governor’s emergency declaration gives the agency “more freedom and flexibility to take specific actions to contain the outbreak.”

The agency moved fast on five initiatives that included inking agreements with hospital systems to expand testing for the COVID-19 virus, preparing to fully mobilize the medical reserve corps, enlarge telemedicine resources and seek more funding and meet with providers who serve older adults to create an aggressive plan to serve at-risk populations.

Second-graders Nyssa Elementary School line up to wash their hands. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Tom Hathaway, chief executive officer for Pioneer Place in Vale, said in a press release that the care center is “preparing for the inevitable arrival of COVID-19 in the Vale/Ontario area.”

Pioneer Place is the only nursing home in Malheur County.

“Our biggest issue and focus is screening people who come to visit. Just asking them a few questions about how they are feeling and have they been in the company of people who may have been exposed, traveled overseas or been on a cruise ship,” said Hathaway.

Hathaway said Pioneer Place has also “implemented new policies for visitors and admissions.”

“We receive, on a weekly basis, referrals from hospitals from Baker to Boise. Now it is part of our screening process to ask a few questions about their current conditions – cold, flu,” said Hathaway.

Hathaway said notices are posted at both entrances to Pioneer Place advising visitors to use caution if they are sick or have been around someone exposed to the COVID-19 virus.

Hathaway said if someone fits the criteria or is visibly ill they will be politely asked to “come back later.”

“We are watching our employees. If they start exhibiting a cough we will pull them aside and interview them. If they say they have a cold starting we will probably send them home,” said Hathaway.

Hathaway said if the COVID-19 virus “starts coming east, which it will, you will see us becoming even more vigilant.”

“We are on top of this. But you can’t stop the cold or the flu from spreading every year,” said Hathaway.

Poe said the health department is working with local schools and churches to furnish information on the COVID-19 virus.

Poe said residents should remember to “have faith that your health care providers and the state and the CDC are doing their best.”

“I think it is important to be prepared. But the good thing is we have excellent health care in this area and we are certainly monitoring people across the state,” said Poe.

Poe said it is also important to remember the COVID-19 virus usually causes mild symptoms.

“Unless you have an underlying health condition, this is something most people can manage and take care of themselves at home,” said Poe.

Schools around the county continue to prepare for a potential infection locally.

In Nyssa, Superintendent Darren Johnson said the district is taking advantage of disinfecting equipment it bought last year.

A second-grader at Nyssa Elementary School takes a turn at the sink, going over proper hand-washing technique. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

“It gives us the ability to clean more surfaces more frequently, so it has proven to be an excellent and insightful investment,” Johnson wrote.

Jesse Melendez, the district’s maintenance director, said the district has six Victory cordless disinfectants, which he and his crew call the “sprayer wand.” The device allows them to quickly spray surfaces with a sanitizer concentrate to more effectively sterilize surfaces.

The sprayers are labelled with the area it’s used for. The district’s cleaning crew uses it on lockers, school buses and any other frequently used surface. On Monday Melendez was spraying chairs and tables ahead of a district meeting.

Melendez said the representative he bought it from recently emailed him to congratulate him on his proactive purchase. The product is now said to be on back order in the frenzy over coronavirus.

Johnson said the district is also teaching students correct hand-washing techniques, but is opting out of more aggressive measures recommended by the Oregon Department of Education.

“Since there aren’t any documented cases in our community, we are not yet following the other suggestions given in the ODE guidance, but will do so if it becomes necessary,” Johnson wrote.

Four Rivers Community School sent out a notice to parents last week. In the letter, the school noted recent changes put in place at the Ontario charter school.

The school hired a temporary custodian to assist janitorial employees with cleaning duties. They installed additional hand sanitizing stations at the high school and purchased sanitizing wipes for computer keyboards.

Four Rivers also temporarily suspended salad bar use for students in kindergarten through eighth grade to prevent contamination from serving utensils.

The letter urged parents to stay informed by signing up for automated text messages and following the school on Facebook.

In Ontario, Superintendent Nicole Albisu wrote in an email that her district continues to follow recommendations from the state, which included increased hand washing, cleaning high-traffic areas and screening for illness among students, staff and visitors.

Besides having custodians amp up cleaning efforts, Albisu said every teacher had been given a bottle of disinfectant for their classroom.

“These are all practices that we are already doing,” Albisu wrote. “We are not, at this time, taking more aggressive measures involving social distancing or isolation. Our safety efforts will continue to focus on practicing good hygiene, staying home when we are not feeling well, and cleaning surfaces in our schools.”

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