Malheur County outlines new measures to battle Covid outbreak

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director framed a letter to Gov. Kate Brown Monday outlining the next steps the county will take to counter the rise of the Covid virus. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

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ONTARIO – Malheur County is proposing new local steps to get the coronavirus under control while asking Gov. Kate Brown to give the community more leeway to avoid reinstatement of a state-at-home order.

A letter penned Monday to Gov. Kate Brown by Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, outlines more free Covid testing, better helping people endure quarantine, and getting more professional help to spot virus trends in the county.

The letter underscores the unique – and growing – Covid crisis in Malheur County where one state official said the malady is “spreading like wildfire.”

Brown last week ordered the county to return to tighter restrictions as of Monday, Aug. 17, to slow the spread of the virus.

As of Sunday, the county reported 912 Covid cases, including 4,629 tests of which 3,717 were negative for the virus. The health department reported 547 people have recovered from the virus and 15 have died from the infection.

The county’s cumulative positive rate sits at 19.7%. The state cumulative positive rate goal is 5%. The county’s positive rate for results last week was 35.7%.

The local Covid crisis has been growing for months. On June 1, the county reported 32 cases dating back to March 29 and 4.7% of those who received tests showed signs of the infections.

Poe said a priority would be to increase the number of people getting tested for the virus and speed up results.

The county began drive-up test sites four months ago but faced delays in acquiring results.

“Part of the surge in cases in July could be attributed to people waiting 14-19 days for test results and not staying home while potentially infectious,” Poe wrote.

Now, though, the county is using a state lab to get results faster, Poe wrote.

“We are in discussion about the future plans for testing and are considering continuing the drive-up teste sites with assistance or to convert to monthly flu vaccine Points of Distribution (PODs),” wrote Poe.

Poe said Monday the county also asked the state for more help to provide tests.

The county is working with Valley Family Health Care to provide even more testing to its clients. The medical care provider, with locations in Ontario, Nyssa and Vale, will open up testing to people without symptoms who “are part of groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including people with close contact with a case, over age 65, people of color, people with a disability, people who speak English as a second language and agriculture workers,” the letter said.

“By testing more at a lower threshold, the positive rate should go down and asymptomatic cases could be identified,” Poe wrote.

The county also plans to extend testing opportunities to people without insurance.

The county plans to beef up its existing “Keep Malheur County Open” media campaign in English and Spanish and establish direct outreach to “cities, churches and community-based organizations with flyers, social media graphics, two billboards and banners,”

Poe said the county health department will strengthen ties with community organizations such as Four Rivers Cultural Center and the New Hope Origins Day Shelter at Origins Faith Community Church in Ontario to furnish “wrap-around services.”

Such services include food box delivery, financial assistance and other social services for those who are quarantined or sick because of the virus.

These steps, Poe said, would “encourage people to stay home when in isolation or quarantine.”

County officials have found that people too often were not complying with quarantine directions, meaning they could be moving around the community while infected with Covid.

The county is also negotiating to reserve a block of 16 motel rooms to provide quarantine space for those who can’t isolate at home or who don’t have regular housing.

The health department will contract with an epidemiologist to “provide additional reporting and recommendations for the COVID-19 situation and share more about case trends, disproportionate risk and more detailed view of where or why people are impacted most.”

Poe said the county also would push its “Mask Up Malheur County” campaign to enlist local support for mandates to wear masks in public and to maintain social distancing of 6 feet.

Poe said Monday another key theme of the letter is to show the governor Malheur County’s unique geographic situation.

“Hopefully the most notable for the governor isn’t our actions but that we should have several metrics changed for us, to reconsider how those metrics don’t make any sense in our county,” said Poe.

In her letter, Poe urged the governor to separate positive Covid cases logged at the Snake River Correctional Institution from the county’s total case count. She said that about one-fifth of cases listed for Malheur County originate from the state prison.

Poe also pointed out that the state metric of no more than 5% rate of tests coming back positive is “an unreasonable percentage at this point because such a high percentage of the county has already been infected.”

Poe said the county would have to test more than 16,000 more people to bring the county’s rate to 5%.

“We’d have to test a total of 60% of our community with no new cases. So, we’re saying, the metrics don’t make a ton of sense in context and we are doing more directly targeted work to where we see outbreaks,” said Poe.

Poe said one problem the county faces is the hesitancy of some people to get tested and lack of access to health care.

Poe wrote that going to a baseline, or stay-at-home, phase “would not directly address these trends because most of the industries in Malheur County where we see COVID-19 cases increasing are considered essential, primarily agriculture and food processing.”

A stay-at-home order, she wrote, would impair child care availability, add to economic hardships and “other risks exacerbating the 30% childhood poverty rate, lack of access to remote work and decrease in behavioral health treatment.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at 541-235-1003 or at [email protected].

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