Malheur County slowing Covid spread – but experts say that trend will change

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, talks the planning behind the drive-thru testing event at the Malheur County Fairgrounds Oct. 14. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Malheur County has slightly tamed the pandemic but officials warn the spread of the coronavirus is likely to pick up speed as winter sets in.

The latest report from the Malheur County Health Department showed that Malheur County has dipped below 100 reported infections a week for the past three weeks. The average daily number of new cases has dropped to 10 after weeks at nearly double that level.

The local improvement ran counter to the state and national trends. Oregon and Idaho health authorities reported record numbers of cases statewide last week, and U.S. authorities said the country posted the highest number of reported infections in a single day since the pandemic started earlier this year.

“It is gathering steam,” said Dr. Shimi Sharief, senior health advisory for the Oregon Health Authority.

“We are bracing for a very difficult 12 weeks ahead,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

“We’re very early in the surge,” said Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for Saint Alphonsus Health System, which operates hospitals in Oregon and Idaho. Saint Alphonsus is again seeing an increase in hospitalizations and emergency room visits for the virus.

And St. Luke’s Health System last week took the extraordinary step of temporarily stopping the admission to children to its Twin Falls hospital. Emergency treatment was still being provided but children needing hospitalization were to be shuttled to Boise because the local hospital is at capacity, according to St. Luke’s.

Idaho, with less than half Oregon’s population, reported more Covid cases. As of Friday, the state reported 58,809 cases to Oregon’s 41,739. Idaho, unlike Oregon, hasn’t imposed statewide pandemic restrictions.

The deteriorating circumstances in the two states comes as the holiday season gets underway this Saturday with Halloween.

Malheur County and state health officials urged people not to engage in trick-or-treating and warned that even “trunk-or-treating” carries a high risk of spreading Covid.

“Avoid parties, even if you’re an adult,” Sharief said. She said people need to “rethink” other holiday plans and limit gatherings to just those who live in the same household.

Sharief said roughly half the infection cases in Oregon can’t be traced to a source, which means the virus is spreading uncontained through communities.

“We’re not seeing large outbreaks,” she said. “We seeing small clusters and small outbreaks” resulting from people relaxing their guard and gathering in small social groups.

“We need Oregonians to be even more vigilant,” she said.

In Malheur County, the percentage of Covid tests coming back positive dropped below 20% for the first time in weeks, averaging 17.6% last week. That’s still about three times the rate at which medical authorities say a virus is manageable.

Poe said that Malheur County has experienced a drop in workplace cases but that last week’s lower testing rate followed a large drive-by event that included nearly four dozen people from Idaho.

“The positive rate is likely going go to back up without far more testing,” she said.

The county health department recently started posting charts that show total cases in the county and then shows what the totals would be if cases in care centers and Snake River Correctional Institution were taken out. For the week ending Saturday, the narrow count was 53, an uptick after four weeks of declines.

“With more testing, people wearing masks, avoiding big gatherings and stay home when sick or exposed to a case, we can set an example of how to safely reopen public life and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed,” Poe said.

State and county health authorities continue to confront misinformation about the virus and protocols to contain it.

President Trump’s U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, took to Twitter last week to urge Americans to continue wearing masks, citing surveys showing citizens overwhelmingly are doing so.

“There is a currently circulating MYTH suggesting masks don’t work to prevent spread of COVID-19,” he posted. “When you can’t guarantee social distancing, wearing a mask whenever and wherever you can is now widely recognized as an evidence-based way to limit COVID-19 spread.”

He ended his Twitter string by declaring that “masks keep our country open.”

Nemerson said that “many people get that this is a highly contagious disease that can be prevented by simple maneuvers.”

He said wearing a mask, keeping a social distance and washing hands often means “your risk of contracting Covid goes down to almost zero.”

Nemerson said of some of those treated by the Saint Alphonsus system for the virus said they didn’t believe they could get sick and that “I should have worn my mask.”

He said medical professionals are noting more spread of the virus among young people, who have a better chance of fending off serious complications from Covid.

The trouble, he said, is that young people take the virus home and spread it to parents, grandparents and other older people.

“That growth is just starting,” Nemerson said. “That’s why we expect the surge to continue to accelerate.”

He said Saint Alphonsus and other medical providers are bracing.

“We are very much prepared for an exponential growth both in the community spread and the transfer to older folks and those with higher risk factors,” Nemerson said.

He said one of the common misunderstandings about Covid is that its symptoms are no worse than common illnesses.

“This isn’t a common cold. This isn’t even the flu,” Nemerson said. “It’s much more aggressive and deadly.”

He said nine out of 10 patients will have a “good recovery” but others will suffer symptoms that can last months.

“Most people have the ability to fight off the virus within about two weeks if you are going to have a good recovery,” he said.

He said the virus, however, can infect all parts of the body, including the nervous system, muscles and the heart.

Medical scans show that “the destruction to the lungs can last for months,” he said. “Damage can even be permanent.”

Malheur County covid data as of Oct. 26. (The Enterprise graphic)

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


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