Oregon health officials eye Idaho fair and rodeo as likely spark in recent surge of Covid cases in Payette and Malheur counties

A large gathering of people at the Payette County Fair and Rodeo in Payette County in early August may be a trigger for more Covid cases. (CDC file art)

PAYETTE – Data collected by an epidemiologist under contract with the Malheur County Health Department suggests that a local fair and rodeo held in early August contributed to a recent spike in Covid cases in Payette and Malheur counties.

Southwest District Health, the Idaho public health agency with jurisdiction over Payette County, however, reported only one positive case can be traced Payette County Fair and Rodeo that kicked off Aug. 5. The district said it can trace less than half the county’s cases to a known source.

“There have still been no clusters of cases linked to that event,” said Katrina Williams, a spokesperson for Southwest District Health.

Yet two weeks after the fair ended, Covid cases in Payette County began to climb. For the week ending Aug. 22 the county reported 98 Covid cases. A week later the number of cases jumped to 113, according to county data.

“Unless there was some other spreading event at the same time and at the same place, I think you can say with a fair amount of confidence that the fair was a kind of instigator event that spread a bunch of Covid in the area,” said Daniel Morris, an epidemiologist and a doctor of public health working under a contract with the Malheur County Health Department.

For most of the summer, Payette County lagged behind Malheur County, where a major outbreak of the virus began in July.

As of Friday, though, Payette County remained in a “red” status in Idaho. A “red” health alert status means there is “rapidly increasing COVID-19 incidence rates, as well as evidence of sustained community spread.”

“I think when you see a spike like this in these longitude data, and it is so closely associated with a particular event that you know about where lots of people came together and it is so localized geography, in my mind that is very compelling evidence that many infections took place at this event,” said Morris.

Since mid-summer, Idaho approached the Covid outbreak in a different way than Oregon.

Idaho adopted a regional strategy instead of statewide policies and pushed authority to fight the virus down to the individual counties.

Oregon, meanwhile, issued statewide mandates to fight the virus.

Health officials in Idaho and Oregon are working together to fight the spread of the virus, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

The challenge, she said, is the message to the public on how to fight the virus is garbled.

 “There are multiple events people are going to without clear guidance and it can be confusing. Wearing masks, limited social gatherings are vital and yet that is clearly not accepted when people are gathering without wearing masks,” said Poe.

Poe said what happens in Idaho influences Malheur County.

“Payette County is absolutely a contributor to the (Covid) risk in Malheur County,” said Poe.

Poe said she can “make the assumption” that the fair and rodeo contributed to the spread of Covid in Malheur County.

“I think it’s a reasonable presumption because there are already strong suggestions that the behavior of the public in counties that don’t have stronger guidelines have absolutely put more people at risk and the data shows they have a lot more cases,” said Poe.

Rather than a focus on the fair and rodeo, Williams said Southwest District Health epidemiologists are worried about Covid epidemics in other places such as local “workplace settings, after school extra curricula, as well as non-essential gatherings,” said Williams.

In an email, Williams wrote that Payette County has a daily Covid incidence rate of 6.173 per 10,000 people “which is continuing to increase.” Data from the health district showed that Payette County was recording a positive test rate for Covid of 24%, compared to 14% in Washington County and 11% in Canyon County.

Poe said the fair and rodeo and the boost in cases in Payette County is “not a straight line.”

The timeline for the fair and the spike in cases fits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incubation period for the Covid virus is 14 days, with an average time of four to five days from exposure to when symptoms of the infection appear.

The fair and rodeo in New Plymouth can’t be viewed separately from Malheur or even Washington counties, said Poe.

Washington, Payette and Malheur counties are intertwined, which means Poe can’t just focus on her area of responsibility when it comes to fighting Covid.

“I need to talk about Malheur County. And, what I am saying, is in Malheur County we have so many people coming into the county from Idaho and people who go from Malheur County to Idaho to work and play. We are a shared community,” said Poe.

Poe said people are “really concerned across Oregon about what is happening in Malheur County but there is a risk that is impacting our county which is not in our jurisdiction.”

“As a result, Malheur County has one of the highest Covid rates in Oregon. We are saying (to the state) a lot of the problem is the hot spot happening in Idaho,” said Poe.

Poe said the way forward now is to create more dynamic ways to help Idaho. Poe said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Idaho Gov. Brad Little have talked about the problem and “on other levels we have politicians who have reached out to work with each other.”

“We want to get our cases down,” said Poe. Poe said residents in Idaho and Oregon must remain cautious.

“I don’t want people to think that going somewhere with massive crowds and not following guidelines is OK. Because it is not,” said Poe.

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

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