Malheur County sees Covid numbers worsen, state ready to step in

Malheur County officials are launching a campaign to get citizens to help curtail the spread of Covid and avoid business closures. (Malheur County Health Department graphic)

Oregon officials may use additional “targeted interventions” to help Malheur County gain control of the fast-spreading coronavirus, according to Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

The county has been posting one of the highest rates of Covid infection and state officials reported Wednesday on two new local outbreaks.

The Malheur County Health Department shared stark numbers Wednesday as it launched a campaign to enlist public help in containing the virus. The campaign theme: Keep Malheur County Open. 

Key numbers from the county on Wednesday:

• 10 new cases, pushing the total since the pandemic started in March to 538.

• Of those, 415 have been reported since July 1.

• The percentage of positive tests – an indicator of how the virus is spreading – was 4.6% on June 22. It hit 16.7% on July 22 – “the highest it has ever been,” according to the county.

• 435 people “are potentially still infectious,” the county agency said.

“Malheur County faces increased restrictions if the metrics do not improve,” the county agency said.

Brown directed new limits statewide to go into effect on Friday, July 24. Those include:

• Requiring masks for all children 5 and older, and recommending masks for children 2 to 5 years old. This includes students attending school.

• Changing hours for restaurants and bars, rolling back the closing time to 10 p.m. They had been allowed for the past month to operate until midnight.

• Reducing the size of gatherings at venues including churches and restaurants to 100.

The new restrictions come a week after the state limited social gatherings indoor to 10 and the county additionally restricted such gatherings outdoors to 25 if social distancing – maintaining 6-foot spacing – wasn’t possible.

Brown hinted at even more restrictions in a news conference Wednesday, saying state authorities were taking a close look at counties on the state’s Watch List. Malheur County is among them.

Liz Merah, the governor’s press secretary, later said in a statement to the Enterprise that “additional restrictions may be needed for counties with very rapid spread of the virus.”

She said the Oregon Health Authority has worked with counties with high infection rates “to implement targeted interventions to help trace and contain outbreaks before we would consider moving counties back in the reopening process. However, if Covid-19 continues to spread rapidly in Oregon, all options are on the table.”

The Health Authority reported Wednesday on two sources of infections in Malheur County.

Five cases were reported at the Ontario Walmart.

Charles Crowson, senior manager in Walmart’s corporate communications, didn’t specifically address the circumstances at the Walmart store but said that generally the company is conducting health screenings of employees when they report for work and is limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at any one time.

The company also now requires all customers wear face coverings as is now required statewide when going to indoor public places such as stores.

The Health Authority also reported five cases at Dorian Place Assisted Living in Ontario. Christine Grothaus, administrator for the care facility, was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment.

The facility has 50 licensed beds, and passed a Covid readiness inspection with no issues in May, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Meantime, the state reported additional infections at Brookdale Ontario senior living facility. The state listed 39 cases this week, an increase of seven, and three deaths, an increase of two, since last week’s report.

The facility had also passed a Covid readiness inspection, and was quarantining residents with appropriate care, according to a state inspection.

Heather Luther, Ontario Brookdale executive director, directed the Enterprise to the facility’s corporate parent, Brookdale Senior Living Inc. Brookdale spokeswoman Heather Hunter did not allow interviews with the Ontario Brookdale staff or otherwise comment on the circumstances in Ontario.

The authority didn’t list any new cases at Ontario’s Kraft Heinz facility, where 26 employees who live in Idaho or Oregon had tested positive as of July 8, company officials confirmed.

The Snake River Correctional Institution outbreak is mostly contained, said spokeswoman Amber Campbell. Between July 13 and July 20, the prison only reported four new staff cases and one more inmate case.

Meantime, the Oregon School Activities Association announced Wednesday that it was delaying the start of fall sports competition by a month, until Sept. 23. That applies to cross country, volleyball and soccer. Practices can still begin Aug. 17.

But football remains off the field for now because it is considered a contact sport currently prohibited by state orders.

“It is necessary that any football restrictions be lifted by September 28 in order to have a modified regular season this fall,” the OSAA said in its statement.

Cheer and dance team also are considered contact sports and aren’t allowed for now. 


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