DIGEST: County goes to Phase 1, rural counties show the way to low case counts, schools pivot

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)

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Here’s a roundup for you of stories related to the pandemic:

Malheur County to drop back to Phase I of state reopening plan as virus continues spreading

ONTARIO – The unrelenting spread of the coronavirus in Malheur County prompted Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday to move the community back a level in its reopening efforts, a decision that won’t change life for most residents.

But the Vale swimming pool and Ontario’s splash pad will have to close by Monday. Other impacts weren’t immediately clear.

Brown announced the pullback to Phase I as cases of Covid locally continue to climb and the county’s cumulative positive testing rate hovers at 19%.

“Over the past month, COVID-19 cases in Malheur County have risen so much that restrictions must be put back in place or we risk further illnesses and death in the region,” said Brown. “I know this change is difficult, but immediate action is necessary in order to reduce the spread of the disease and protect all those who call Malheur County home.”

As of Thursday, the county reported 847 Covid cases and a weekly positive testing rate of 25%.


Some Oregon superintendents, parents report ‘whiplash’ as state school reopening rules change again

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry was preparing for a school board meeting Aug. 11 when she got the email from the Oregon Department of Education.

Perry, who leads Oregon’s second-largest school district, was expecting the latest state guidelines for returning to school. She thought they’d include more detail about how federally-funded education programs and special education services would operate with classes held remotely.

But there was a surprising wrinkle. Schools would now be allowed and even encouraged to bring some students into buildings in small groups for schooling or services that can’t be offered remotely, like speech language pathology, career technical education or help learning English.

It was a 180-degree turn from two weeks earlier, when state officials said schools couldn’t hold any in-person class unless counties reported fewer than 30 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents – a target most of Oregon’s largest counties were nowhere close to meeting.

“All of a sudden I went ‘Oh, wait a minute, stop, they changed the metrics,’” Perry said.


Amid Covid, some Ontario police officers aren’t wearing masks on the job

ONTARIO – Despite Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide mask mandate and rapid Covid spread in Malheur County, some officers in the Ontario Police Department aren’t wearing face coverings at all times.

Police Chief Steven Romero reasons that “police work is based on communications,” and problems arise when people or fellow officers can’t understand what the officer is saying through a mask. For example, he said, when the department pursued three murder suspects a few weeks ago, officers had to communicate over the radio systems, which “are already not the best.”

“Imagine having to try to communicate to your dispatcher, your fellow law enforcement officers, or anyone else through a mask during a high-risk, dynamic, fluid scenario,” said Romero.

However, police officers are wearing masks during “routine activities,” such as in the office, dealing with calls for service or working on “non-emergent tasks,” he said. FULL STORY HERE.

SOLUTIONS: As Malheur County struggles with pandemic, other rural counties provide clues to control

ONTARIO – Rural, secluded counties in Oregon and Idaho appear to be able to evade the latest wave of Covid infections even as cases of the malady continue to mount in Malheur County.

Two Oregon counties depressed the spread of Covid so well that Gov. Kate Brown recently removed them from the state watchlist of counties where the virus is out of control.

Meantime, Malheur County continues to report new infections it can’t trace to a source, more deaths and more people so seriously ill with the virus they need hospitalization.

The county’s experience isn’t just a complex chain of numbers. State and county officials recently again restricted gatherings. School officials who spent the summer planning to get children back in classrooms are announcing one after another that won’t happen soon.

Through interviews and an analysis of data from the West, the Enterprise identified counties where the virus isn’t on a rampage – and what steps those counties took to keep it contained. The research found four factors impacting the local impact:

• A strong attitude of compliance with state and federal social distancing guidelines.

•Rapid mitigation efforts when the virus first appeared on American shores.

• Low population density.

• The relative isolation of the counties.



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