Malheur County heads into holiday weekend with cases surging and state authorities stepping in

Amber Harriman of Fruitland, Idaho, has her nose swabbed by county health care worker MaryLue Galligar at the Ontario Covid testing site on July 1. Harriman works in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

ONTARIO – Malheur County will head into the holiday weekend under the eye of state officials worried that Covid infections are rapidly spinning out of control in the community.

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday announced she was putting Malheur County and seven others – Jefferson, Lake, Lincoln, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wasco – on a state watch list because of a high number of recent Covid cases.

“Analysis by the Oregon Health Authority showed alarmingly high per capita rates of case increases and community spread – cases where the infections are not attributable to a specific location or event,” Brown said in announcing the watch list designation.

She said such community spread is a “serious warning” for the county and warned that if there isn’t a downturn soon, “restrictive measures such as business closures or tighter gathering size limits will ensue.”

The governor gave her warning as the community headed into a Fourth of July holiday weekend with no rodeos, no parades and no fireworks. State officials implored people across the state to stay home for the holiday and limit celebrations to their relatives.

“We know this is hard and that it’s been hard for a long time now,” said state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, in a Friday statement. “We’re all weary, but if we’re going to come out on the other side, we need to stay the course.”

Authorities urged people to obey the governor’s new order that everyone must wear a mask when going inside public places such as grocery stores and restaurants. Brown made clear Friday she intended to see her order enforced, pinning her expectations on businesses to not let customers in who aren’t wearing a mask.

Here is the latest case count from the Malheur County Health Department, provided Friday, July 3. (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan)

Those moves were underscored Friday afternoon when Malheur County authorities reported 31 new cases of Covid – a record number in one day and nearly doubling since Sunday the number of county residents diagnosed with the disease.

The county has 191 cases, an accumulating total since the first case was detected in late March. Of those cases, 48 have recovered and the health department has tested 1,886 people, of which 1,695 tested negative.

The new cases push the county’s positive infection rate to 10.1%, well above the state average of 3.5%. That infection rate is also far above what the county in May designated as a level that would be concerning – 5%. The county rate a week ago was about 4%. The increasing rate of positive tests is not the result of just more testing but a spreading virus, according to health authorities.

“This tells us we have a significant increase in infections and that there are likely more cases out there that we have not identified,” the Malheur County Health Department said in a statement Friday.

“I suspect our numbers are going to be getting worse. We are really pleading with the public to take this seriously,” said Sarah Poe, department director.

Contributing to the soaring number of cases is an outbreak at Brookdale Ontario, an assisted living facility at 1372 S.W. 8th Ave. in Ontario. County officials said testing earlier in the week determined 26 employees and staff were infected.

State records show the facility is licensed for 82 beds. A person answering the phone there Friday afternoon said he couldn’t comment.

But the outbreak there led to a state order that the facility take in no more clients.

The Snake River Correctional Institution also reported that seven employees and one inmate had tested positive for Covid. The facility, the largest state prison in Oregon, put all inmates in quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease.

New data from the state showed the seriousness of the situation in Malheur County. It ranks third highest in the state for the rate of infections for its population – and third highest for cases that couldn’t be traced to a source. Such tracing is considered by medical experts crucial to identifying people who don’t realize they are infected and getting them quarantined.

The watch list designation means the state will provide the county with more tests, beef up the health department’s staff of contact tracers and boost education efforts, including signs and posters.

Brown said in her press release that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration would work through the weekend, doing checks “to ensure restaurants, bars, and other businesses, and their patrons are complying with state alcohol laws, OLCC rules and the requirement to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces.”

Businesses found to be violating the state liquor laws could face citations, fines and even a Red Warning Notice. Such a warning would force the closure of a business until “the hazardous condition is remedied. Violation of Red Warning Notice results in stiff penalties,” the governor’s statement said.

Andy Jurik, OLCC regional manager for central and eastern Oregon, said “our inspectors will be out, some will be ganged up, some single, doing what they normally do.”

But the agency can’t enforce the mask mandate. Instead, OLCC is acting as the “eyes and ears” for OSHA, according to Mark Pettinger, OLCC spokesperson.

The commission would report Covid violations to OSHA, which does have the ability to penalize violators.

If a safety violation was the result of an OLCC rule being broken – such as people not wearing masks because they were over-served or intoxicated – inspectors could then discipline the licensee, said Pettinger.

“It’s a holiday weekend, but don’t expect that our inspectors will be taking time off,” he said.

Most licensees have been flexible and willing to work with OLCC to “reopen and be able to maintain some semblance of business activity,” he said, but all it takes is one bar or restaurant that is not in compliance and contributes to the spread of the Covid virus for those establishments to again be shut down.

“Our inspectors have good relationships with local law enforcement in the areas they operate, and they’ll know if there are specific bars and restaurants that are problematic,” he said.

Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the association “is advising all industry members to follow all guidelines announced by the Oregon Health Authority and the governor’s office. Face coverings for employees and customers as stipulated in guidance documents are critical and must be taken seriously.

“We know restaurants across this state will do whatever they can to make sure customers and employees are complying with face covering regulations. We hope fines will be imposed on customers, not businesses, as a matter of common sense when customers forcibly refuse to wear face masks causing confrontational problems with industry employees – many of which are young Oregonians learning customer service and problem-solving skills as part of a first-time job.”

OSHA will enforce the mandatory mask and social distancing rules in businesses, and can now cite, fine or close businesses that don’t enforce the rules.

The department was closed for the holiday Friday and agency officials couldn’t be reached.

The region’s two state lawmakers called for residents to be vigilant and follow social distancing guidelines.

“Our county health departments are working very hard and with limited resources during very difficult times, and we need to do all we can to support them. We need to make uncomfortable adjustments and continue to work together to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Findley.

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Burns, said in a statement jointly issued with Findley that “we’re collectively urging our constituents to follow the measures in place this time. Our citizens need to feel safe and be healthy, and our businesses are vulnerable to being shut down again and we won’t make it through another round of closures.”

Owens and Findley represent counties on the governor’s watch list.

The long-term impact of the governor’s watch list designation depends on the number of new Covid cases, said Poe.

“It is extremely important the public takes personal responsibility to keep safe. When we do not have compliance to the guidance then it becomes necessary to have intervention that will keep people safe,” said Poe.

The county could voluntarily adopt stricter measures – as Union County did recently – to combat a growing number of cases. Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce was unavailable for comment on the matter Friday but Poe said she didn’t think stricter measures are “necessary at this time.”

Poe said it might be better to develop a regional approach to the problem.

Poe said, however, if Covid case numbers continue to climb then “we will be in discussion with our county court” about stricter measures.

Poe said the county’s ability to diagnose, treat, track and quarantine new Covid cases is adequate.

“Our hospital system is doing a great job. The thing is we are lucky we are part of a four-hospital system. We have sufficient hospital capacity, but not unlimited hospital capacity,” said Poe.

As of Wednesday, July 1, Malheur County authorities reported Covid infections in three major cities, with the rate of infection per capita roughly the same. More cases have been reported since then. (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan)

Reporters Bailey Lewis, Rachel Parsons and Kezia Setyawna contributed to this report.

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