JULY REVIEW: The latest on Malheur County’s pandemic

Latest numbers surrounding Covid cases in Malheur County as August begins. With these numbers, note that test results are coming back later as processing capacity becomes strained. (Kezia Setyawan/The Entprise)

Malheur County experienced a surge in Covid cases in July with more than 500 cases but new state data shows that the county’s overall rate dropped through the month.

Despite the apparent improvement, Malheur County still has one of the highest infection rates in Oregon and has coronavirus tests coming back positive at a rate five times higher than what health officials consider acceptable.

The county remains on the state watch list of counties where the virus is not under control. Gov. Kate Brown last week ordered one of those counties, Umatilla, to return to tighter restrictions, meaning that personal service businesses had to close and restaurants again had to stop sit-down dining. She has given no indication through Monday she intended to impose new restrictions in Malheur County.

The spread of the virus in Malheur County has taken a toll on employers and the public health systems and now threatens to derail local schools from returning students to classrooms.

During July, Malheur County recorded 538 Covid cases – about 80% of all cases detected in the county since the first infection was found in late March. Nine of 10 deaths attributed at least in part to Covid occurred in July, according to county and state data.

For the month, nearly one out of four Covid tests came back positive. The average across Oregon is one out of 20.

But data from the Oregon Health Authority showed some improvement through the month.

The case rate per 100,000 population – a formula used to equally calculate rates in each county – started out at 543 the first week of July, dropped to 383 and was 285 by the week of July 19. The positive testing rate dropped from 36% to 21% in that time.

Still, state and county health officials are pressing the community to employ the by-now-standard recipe for getting the pandemic under control – wear masks, avoid large gatherings, keep a six-foot distance from others, and wash hands regularly.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, attributed the increase in positive tests and July’s explosion in cases to inadequate mitigation efforts locally and a spread that saw cases double every six to seven days.

For every one person infected in the county, another 1.03 get infected, according to Harvard researchers. This number is important for understanding spread of the disease. A rate less than one means the disease is dying in the community.

She said people also weren’t following health guidelines like staying at home when showing symptoms and that another factor has been the heavy daily interaction between Oregonians and Idahoans traveling across the border.

“We impact each other,” she said.

Counties in Idaho close to Malheur County such as of Canyon, Owyhee, Ada and Payette also experienced huge spikes in positive cases during July.

Getting a handle on Malheur County’s pandemic has been complicated by a lag in tests results. Poe said that labs that process testing kits are being overwhelmed and people are not staying home waiting for their test results, which can undermine a negative test because people may have been exposed to the virus while waiting for the results.

News tip? Contact reporter Kezia Setyawan or Aidan McGloin at [email protected] or [email protected]

Read our other related coverage throughout this month here:

YOUR COVID QUESTIONS: Experts answer many questions from the community about the coronavirus

Lag in receiving Covid test results contributing to ‘out of control’ spread in Malheur County

New Covid regulations make school reopening unlikely

VIDEO: Quarantine 101 – Can the health department enforce quarantine?


Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE – $5 a month, automatically. DONATE – to provide additional support.