Amber Harriman of Fruitland, Idaho, has her nose swabbed by county health care worker MaryLue Galligar at the Ontario Covid testing site in July. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)
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ONTARIO – New Covid statistics from the state show Malheur County has a substantially spreading rate of infection and local officials say they are having a hard time tracing where many of local people are contracting it.
The information released by the Oregon Health Authority this week indicates Malheur County has failed to meet state criteria in the number of positive tests, new cases, the number of cases that cannot be traced to a source and the length of time between when a person tests positive for the virus and when they are contacted by health authorities.
The same data show that the number of local visits to emergency rooms for Covid and hospitalization for the infection are down.
Overall, Malheur County is failing four of the six most crucial measures of how the community is faring during the pandemic.
The state data shows the percentage of positive tests for the seven days ending Aug. 5 in Malheur County is at 23% – one of the highest in the state. In that time, number of new cases increased by 15%. The state goal for that is an increase of no more than 5%.
And Malheur County is far behind tracing the source of infections for county residents. As of the report date county couldn’t trace where a person got sick in 66% of the cases. The state goal is 30%.
The percent of people contacted fast after they test positive in the county is 85%. The state benchmark is 95%.
The statistics reflect a spreading virus in the community, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.
“It is getting worse,” said Poe.
Part of the problem, said Poe, is the lack of Covid tests locally.
“We know we need to do more testing,” said Poe.
Poe said without widespread testing the possibility of thousands of unknown cases in the county climbs.
“We know without sufficient testing somewhere between 4,000 to 8,000 people could potentially be infected,” said Poe. “Our positivity rate is so high we know we are not capturing all the cases out there. So that means we have a much bigger problem than we can see.”
Thursday, the county reported 755 Covid cases, including more than 400 people still isolated and in quarantine. Poe said as of Thursday, 345 people have recovered from the virus and 12 have died from the malady.
With inadequate testing, Poe said the community must focus on the by now familiar themes of social distancing, avoiding large crowds and wearing a mask to tame the growing outbreak.
Poe said while she has seen a noticeable improvement in the number of people wearing masks and social distancing locally, more work is needed.
“If it doesn’t change, it is only going to get worse until we have a vaccine. How many people will get really sick or how many schools can’t open and have kids back because we couldn’t be bothered to put on a mask?” said Poe.
If the overall Covid trend continues to climb, Poe said, “we absolutely have to look at further restrictions.”
The Malheur County Court this week continued its local restrictions on local gatherings, a move tighter than state mandates. More restrictions could be in the offing as Gov. Kate Brown and state health authorities are keeping a close eye on Malheur County, one of nine counties on a state watch list.
“We could shut everything down. We are trying to avoid that,” said Poe.
The responsibility to avoid a shutdown, said Poe, rests with the public.
“Our community has to approach this together. Public health has been put in this position where we know what works, which is a stay-at-home order but we recognize that additional hardships and how that really isn’t a long-term solution,” said Poe.
Poe said the health department is recording about 100 new Covid cases a week and the infection rate isn’t helped by the fact Malheur County borders Idaho, where the virus is well entrenched and spreading.
On Thursday, Payette County reported 367 Covid cases, while Washington County logged 200. Payette County was moved into a Covid red alert by Southwest District Health Aug. 5.
“If we want to keep our economy open then that means people have to do their part. That means you are not having big gatherings and not going to social events and you are wearing a mask,” said Poe.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.
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