As Covid spreads, Malheur County prepares to limit local gatherings – inside and outside

Health workers check temperature and paperwork of community members before getting tested at an event in Nyssa on Wednesday, July 8. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

SATURDAY UPDATE: The Malheur County Health Department on Saturday afternoon reported a record number of new Covid cases – 74. That takes the county’s total to 376 – up 172 cases since Sunday. The county reported the accumulative rate of tests returning positive is now 15%.

ONTARIO – With one of the highest Covid infection rates in the state, Malheur County is expected to impose new restrictions on gatherings as county and state health officials attempt to slow the virus.

The Malheur County Court is scheduled to vote Wednesday, July 15, on a resolution reducing the size of legal gatherings in the county to no more than 10 people indoors from the current restriction of 50. The court also will vote on limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 people – down from the current 100.

And for the first time, the county could require face coverings for those gathering in outdoor events. State guidance on face masks has focused on indoor circumstances and doesn’t specifically address the need to wear masks outside. The state generally recommends masks be used “in any setting” where social distancing can’t be maintained.

The new limits would be last through at least early August.

“Everyone’s going to have to make some sacrifices,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

The new restrictions wouldn’t apply to businesses or churches, but state and county officials said stricter measures would be imposed if the spread of the virus in Malheur County can’t be checked.

Health authorities are acting as the total number of Covid cases in Malheur County hit 302 on Friday, with a second death reported that was related to Covid. Six people remain hospitalized for treatment for the virus.

The county’s resolution concludes that state guidelines meant to allow counties to move to a second phase of opening on June 6 have “not proven effective in Malheur County.”

DOCUMENT: Malheur County resolution draft

Gov. Kate Brown put Malheur County on a state watch list on July 3 as the Covid infection spread. The county resolution said that if the county doesn’t see a downturn “quickly” in Covid cases, “additional restrictive measures are expected from the state.”

On Thursday night, the state’s epidemiologist wrote to Poe, recommending the county act “immediately” to address the health crisis.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger said in his letter to Poe on Thursday, July 9, that the number of Covid cases in Malheur County doubled in a week “with an uptrend in new hospital admissions over the last two weeks.

He said that nearly half the known Covid cases couldn’t be traced to a known source. That means that people infected with Covid who had no symptoms or otherwise were unaware they were sick were spreading the virus through contact.

Sidelinger noted that the percent of Covid tests coming back positive in Malheur County had hit 20% – four times what county officials had set as an indicator of trouble. Put another way, that means that one out of every five tests was turning up positive.

“It’s frightening,” Poe said in an interview Friday evening.

Sidelinger recommended the county reduce the size of gatherings, require people attending even the smaller gatherings to stay 6 feet apart, and require face masks at all gatherings.

DOCUMENT: Oregon Health Authority letter

A county task force considered the recommendations late Friday, and supported action by the county court to impose them.

“These temporary measures for local social gatherings include civic, cultural and private social gatherings and events, such as large backyard weddings, private rodeo clubs and non-profit events,” according to the draft of a resolution that county commissioners will consider.

“We really need the public to take personal responsibility and follow the guidelines,” Poe said. “We really have to keep our goals in mind. We are saving lives. We are preventing outbreaks. We are also trying to protect businesses and get kids back in school in person.”

Poe said health authorities decided to further limit the size of gatherings because tracing has established such group events as one source of new cases.

She said the county’s businesses are complying with the state mandate that employees and customers wear masks when indoors at stores and other locations.

“They’ve been responsive to education and changing guidance,” Poe said. “We’ve been happy to hear that businesses are now enforcing the requirement for face coverings.”

She said the new restrictions were designed to spare harming the local economy. She also said churches were excluded because they have been following state requirements.

Poe said it would be up to the county to enforce the new restrictions, but its public health staff is already strained. The county and state are following up, though, on all complaints that state mandates aren’t being obeyed.

“We’re pleading with the public to help make this work,” she said.

The resolution to be considered by the county commissioners said the new restrictions would be “enforced through education and warnings.”

The resolution puts county residents on notice that “more serious and additional action” would be taken by county officials if residents don’t comply.

Poe said the state for now is letting the county take the lead on getting the virus under control, but state restrictions are possible. Poe said state officials told her one step might be to again stop sit-down dining at restaurants.

The Oregon Health Authority said in a statement Friday to the Enterprise that “we are in ongoing conversations with our local partners and at the state, including the governor’s office, to determine whether and what steps may be needed to further contain the spread of COVID-19. In addition to following the daily data, we will look at updated watch list metrics at the start of next week, and public health metrics mid-week.”

Poe said it’s up to the community what happens next.

“We would like to avoid a stay home order,” she said.

She said county authorities for now simply want to stop the increase in cases, flattening the trajectory. She said only community action would satisfy the state that local acts are controlling the virus without more state intervention.

“I don’t think they are going to give us a ton of time,” she said.



Malheur County Health Department data:

New positive cases reported Saturday: 74

Total positive cases: 376

New cases in the past week: 172

Total positive cases a week ago: 204

Total positive cases two weeks age: 97

Rate of positive tests as of Saturday: 15.1%

Rate of positive tests last Saturday: 10.2%

Rate of positive tests 2 weeks ago: 6.8%

Hospitalizations: 6 current, 13 total

Contact editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].


County Judge Dan Joyce: [email protected]

Commissioner Don Hodge: [email protected]

Commissioner Larry Wilson: [email protected]


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