State, county officials acting to rein in fast-spreading virus in Malheur County

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UPDATE: Churches were limited to no more than 50 people indoors under a new state order issued July 24. An earlier version of this report cited state orders that allowed up to 250 people for church gatherings indoors. The July 24 order reduced the maximum outdoors gatherings from 100 to 50, a limit that applied to churches.

The yellow tape has to go back up around playgrounds, closing them to kids.

And as Malheur County heads back into 100-degree weather, two sources of relief for local children will close on Monday – the Vale pool and the Ontario splash pad.

The moves all come as health authorities take steps to get more Malheur County residents to distance from each other to get the coronavirus under control.

Unless Covid is tamed, state officials say, Malheur County could follow Umatilla County back to the restrictive measures that stop restaurant dining, close hairdressers and barbers and make certain retailers put up the “closed” sign.

“The Covid-19 virus is a deadly threat that is spreading like wildfire across Malheur County,” said Thomas Wheatley, interim communications director for Gov. Kate Brown. “If the community cannot get the virus under control, then we will need to return to baseline stay home status to prevent additional deaths.”

The governor underscored the urgency of Malheur County’s situation by ordering the county to return to tighter restrictions on public behavior starting Monday, Aug. 17.

DOCUMENT: State phases

As she did so, the number of people infected with the virus continues to grow. As of Friday, 889 cases were identified. Thirteen people are in such serious medical condition they are in the hospital. Since March, 15 people have died related to Covid, and the state announced that a state prison inmate died on Wednesday.

The toll on residents has been mounting for weeks.

On June 1, the county reported just 32 cases dating back to March 29, and 4.7% of those getting tested were showing signs of the infection.

By July 1, four times as many cases were reported while the number of tests had only doubled.

Through July, the number of cases increased fivefold.

More worrisome to health authorities is how many tests were coming back positive. Health experts aim to keep that rate at 5% or lower, indicating that while a virus is present, it’s not out of control.

Malheur County has seen only increasing percentages of those tested showing signs of infection. On July 1, that percentage was 8.3%. A month later, it was 17.7%. In the last week, that nearly doubled to 32%.

The state and county have tried a variety of measures across Oregon and in Malheur County to slow the spread. Brown has mandated that masks be worn in public places. The governor and the Malheur County Court on July 15 put the lid of indoor social gatherings such as birthdays, declaring no more than 10 people could be at such events.

Malheur County went a step farther, saying outdoor social gatherings could have no more than 25 people – half what the state was allowing.

DOCUMENT: Malheur County restrictions

The limits haven’t worked.

State and county officials cite two key reasons.

They say people continue to gather in groups, allowing the virus to spread among people who may not appear infected.

“Social gatherings are a major source of the spread of the disease – often because we let our guard down around people know,” Wheatley said in his email to the Enterprise.

And officials say that proximity to Idaho, which has far fewer restrictions, means it’s likely Malheur County is unwittingly importing the virus, either by people from Idaho who work in Oregon or those from Malheur County traveling to Idaho for shopping and wide-open events such as rodeos.

But health officials concede they don’t know for sure where people in Malheur County are getting the virus. The work of contact tracers, government employees charged with tracing how an infected person has moved through the community, has been impaired. In more than half the instances among Malheur County’s infected residents, tracers can’t find where they got Covid. That is considered “sporadic” spread that makes it challenging to find and quarantine other exposed people before they can become virus spreaders themselves.

Pat Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, said in a news briefing Friday that sporadic spread jusitified to putting Malheur County on a stricter course.

“They got it from someone,” Allen said.

Allen said steps taking effect on Monday include requiring restaurants and bars to close earlier and limiting gatherings.

But restaurants and bars statewide last month were ordered by the governor to close at 10 p.m., so there will be no hours change required for Malheur County establishments.

And limits on people gathering have largely been in place for weeks in Malheur County.

The state in July limited social gatherings to no more than 10 people indoors, a limit echoed in a county ordinance approved at the same time.

And moving back to Phase I won’t change most event-type gatherings held indoors such as civic meetings. The current limit of up to 50 people will remain the same.

Allen said the state is moving carefully.

“We’re trying to use an incremental approach” in a way “that causes as little damage as possible,” Allen said.

Malheur County officials in recent days have been evaluating what other steps could be taken locally to corral the coronavirus, and an announcement of those potential acts was expected soon.

Meantime, government officials also are trying to coordinate with Idaho to drive down infections along the Oregon-Idaho border, Allen said on Friday.

He said Malheur County commissioners were reaching out to counterparts across the river, and Brown’s office has been in touch with the staff of Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Payette, Canyon and Washington counties have been placed by local authorities in a “red” category for virus spread there.

“Idaho is kind of on fire right now,” Allen said.

The Malheur County Health Department earlier in the week noted that issue.

“With tens of thousands of Idahoans in Malheur County every day to work and shop, the alarming rate of cases in neighboring counties is relevant to the risk in Malheur. As of today, Idaho is reporting 26,631 cases. Oregon is reporting 22,300 cases,” the agency said in a web posting.

“We need state and local officials in Idaho to do their part,” Wheatley said.

Reporters Pat Caldwell, Ardeshir Tabrizian and Aidan McGloin contributed reporting to this story.

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

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