Officials: Malheur County ready for phased reopening despite last week’s increase in cases

Health workers record patient information at a drive-thru site that tested 39 people in Malheur County. All 39 tests came back negative for the virus, health officials reported Monday. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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ONTARIO – Malheur County leaders say the community is prepared and ready to open in two weeks despite what’s been described as a “drastic increase” in COVID-19 infections.

The chance to start dining out again and getting haircuts is possible by the May 15 date set by Gov. Kate Brown for counties that prove they can handle the coronavirus.

“We’re more than covered,” said Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce in an interview Monday.

“We’re fully prepared,” said state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.

But the decision to allow Malheur County to go with a partial reopening is in the governor’s hands. Her office said no schedule has been set for approving county plans.

The Malheur County Health Department threw up a caution flag over the weekend after reporting a streak of new positive tests for COVID-19.

The health agency on Saturday reported one new positive test for the respiratory disease. It was the fourth day in a row that new infections have been found – the longest streak for Malheur County since its first case on March 30.

The county has recorded 13 cases so far, with no deaths. Five have recovered and none are in the hospital, according to the health department.

“Malheur County Health Department officials are now anticipating a surge due to a drastic increase in cases in the last week,” the agency said in a statement Saturday.

“Malheur County cannot safely reopen and lift the restrictions that have caused much sacrifice and hardship across our community with a significant increase in cases as we see now,” the health agency said.

The Malheur County Court last Wednesday approved a detailed plan for reopening the county. The plan, devised by health and emergency agencies, counted on phases to keep control of the virus and start allowing modified operations of closed businesses such as restaurants and bars.

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, said Sunday that despite the new cases, he would press Brown to allow Malheur County to proceed with a revised opening plan. He said the key should be not the number of cases but the ability of the local medical community to handle infections.

“If there are more than five cases and that’s not overwhelming the medical community, we should be allowed to open,” Owens said.

He said Malheur County remains below another key measure – 5% positive rates from testing. He said as more testing is done, more positive results are going to occur.

“That’s something we’re going to have to live with,” Owens said.

Findley too noted that while Malheur County’s case count is increasing, the state’s concern is having capacity in the medical system to care for seriously ill coronavirus victims.

“None of these cases required hospitalization or any health care,” Findley said. “They required confinement.”

The county health agency noted that testing for the respiratory disease has increased in the county, including a drive-thru clinic Wednesday, April 29, at the Malheur County Fairgrounds that tested 39 people. All 39 tested negative for the COVID-19 virus, said Malheur County Health Department director Sarah Poe late Monday.

“We were glad to see we don’t have a spike at least from that testing, and I was pleased we got those results back within a week,” said Poe.

The agency said increased testing should have resulted in a lower rate of people testing positive for the disease. That’s because the testing standards have been lowered, so it is not only the most obviously sick now getting tested.

The increase in Malheur County cases is notable compared to neighboring counties. Baker and Lake counties have yet to have any cases while Grant and Harney each have reported a single infected individual.

In Idaho, Payette County has reported 14 positive cases and one death.

Findley noted that one state requirement is even more testing.

“We’ve got to do 100 tests a week,” he said, to meet the state’s expectations that local officials will detect any spreading of the virus.

Local officials and business leaders have been anticipating a relaxing of state restrictions across Malheur County to get the local economy moving again. The hospitality industry has been hit especially hard, with some restaurants closing and hotels reporting sparse occupancy.

The county agency again called on residents to help stop the virus from spreading by leaving home only for essential trips and observing social distancing standards, which includes staying six feet away from others while in public. There were reports that major retailers in Malheur County have been jammed with customers and that some workers weren’t wearing masks as advised by health officials.

“If people don’t simply take this seriously to reduce the likelihood that they could pass the virus without symptoms, we will be unable to open for a longer amount of time,” the agency said. “We can only flatten the curve of the upward trend in new cases by being more vigilant in prevention measures.”

Joyce said he shopped over the weekend and saw that store employees and customers were complying with social distancing standards.

Even when the county gets relaxed standards, “I don’t think it will be business as usual ever again.”

He said he thinks county residents have become trained in the social distancing measure of staying six feet away. He said residents have to get used to wearing masks.

“I would recommend very highly, as highly as anybody can, to wear the mask,” Joyce said. “They’re important. They’re really important.”

Findley agreed that there will be a “new normal” to life in Malheur County.

“Everybody has a responsibility to pay attention to that,” Findley said.

Poe said officials understand the concerns of business owners and residents who want the

county to reopen.

“We want them to reopen but we have to follow the guidelines to do so safely,” said Poe.

Joyce and the two legislators said they haven’t been told by Brown’s staff when to expect a decision on opening.

The county judge said he did learn on a call with the governor Friday that she doesn’t expect to allow large public events before Sept. 1. Such a determination could jeopardize Malheur County events such as rodeos in Vale and Nyssa and the Malheur County Fair.

Reporter Pat Caldwell contributed to this story.

Contact editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]