Malheur County pulls together plan to allow business, life to resume more normally

Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said any blueprint to reopen the county will be like a ‘sunrise, not a flick of a switch.’ (The Enterprise/File.)

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ONTARIO – Malheur County officials say lifting COVID-19 virus restrictions locally will be a slow, methodical process that hinges on several key factors.

Last week Gov. Kate Brown outlined her plan to reopen the state. The plan, which will be executed in stages, revolves around a series of key conditions that include: a decline in the number of COVID-19 symptoms and cases and the ability of hospitals to conduct regular procedures and provide adequate testing. To reopen the state, a “robust” testing and contact tracing program will also be necessary. The broader state health care system must also carry adequate surge capacity and personal protective equipment to meet a COVID-19 resurgence.

Under the first phase of the state plan, all vulnerable individuals – the elderly and those with underlying health conditions – must continue to shelter in place. In public, everyone should “maximize physical distance from others.” Oregonians are directed to avoid socializing in groups of more than ten people and areas where people typically congregate will remain closed.

All non-essential travel will be minimized and work from home encouraged.

After a 14-day period, the state could move into phase two and three of the plan.

Much of the governor’s blueprint is still a work in progress. This week, officials plan to seek comment and input in an effort to solidify the proposal.

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, said local officials are also at work on a local health plan to reopen.

A lot of the plan, she said, will hinge on the COVID-19 virus.

“At this point it really relies on seeing that curve go down, which I think we have begun to see, and we just need it to stabilize,” said Poe.

Baker and Harney counties have already proposed health plans to reopen.

The effort a plan to reopen will be led by the county’s COVID-19 task force. The task force consists of: Poe, Lt. Rich Harriman, county emergency services director; Craig Geddes, director of environmental health for the county; Eric Evan, Malheur County Planning Director; county surveyor Tom Edwards along with Angie Gerrard and Peggy Winslow the health department.

The task force meets several times a week, said Poe.

Poe said similar to the governor’s plan to reopen, the local framework will “have phases and criteria that have to be met in each phase.”

Poe said once the county starts to reopen, people will need to be even “more vigilant.”

“It will still be important for the public to protect themselves. When you are outside your home, wash your hands often. Disinfecting surfaces needs to continue, if not ramp up, because the virus is not going away,” said Poe.

Once the local plan is finalized, it will go before the Malheur County Court for final approval.

One key future step will be more testing and the county is spearheading a drive-through clinic scheduled for Wednesday, April. 29, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The aim of the clinic – held at the Malheur County Fairgrounds – is to gauge the extent of the virus spread in the community. The county had 100 tests for the event.

Even with the drive-through clinic, testing remains a problem, said Poe.

“What we need is testing capacity,” said Poe.

That’s why, Poe said, health officials are cautious about lifting all COVID-19 virus restrictions too fast.

 “Right now, we don’t know if we’ve seen our peak,” said Poe.

Malheur County reported seven COVID-19 virus cases as of Monday. On Friday, Idaho reported 1,836 confirmed COVID-19 virus cases and 54 deaths. Oregon reported 2,177 COVID-19 virus cases Friday and 86 deaths.

The features of the virus are another reason for watchfulness, said Poe. Poe said research shows some people infected with COVID-19 virus don’t show symptoms and may become ill up to two weeks after exposure.

“That is why it is different than the flu,” said Poe.

Lt. Rich Harriman, Malheur county emergency services director, said he believes reopening the county should be completed in a “staged approach.”

“We don’t want to see a resurgence, where people have to be hospitalized,” said Harriman.

Harriman said a measured re-opening of businesses and social gatherings is possible.

“I would keep those areas where you can’t limit groups, or can’t enforce social distancing, like bars, closed. Because the purpose of a bar is to go and get together with your friends and you are close together. In other areas, as long as social distancing can be adhered to, open it up,” said Harriman.

Harriman said he could visualize other establishments, such as barber shops or gyms, perhaps being open under very precise restrictions.

“Barber shops can limit the number of people at any one time, even gyms can limit, you know, shut down every other device. As long as people are separated,” said Harriman.

Malheur County is a border county with Idaho and that geographic reality creates unique challenges for health officials, said Poe.

“As we open, that means people are going to be traveling more and more from Ada, Canyon and Payette counites into Malheur County. I am not just looking at the Oregon curve but the Idaho curve. Both curves matter to our border town,” said Poe.’

Poe said the low number of cases in Malheur County can be traced to one factor: social distancing.

“It has been a sacrifice but what we did worked,” said Poe.

Poe said the COVID-19 virus is here to stay and that also plays a role in any reopening plan.

“As we reopen it is just recognizing it has not gone away and likely more people will be infected,” she said.

The future, she said, of the health battle against the COVID-19 virus will switch from a policy of “mitigation to containment.”

Poe said people should not expect the county to open all at once.

“It will be like a sunrise, not a flick of a switch,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].