Here’s what is behind the state’s move to ‘pause’ a lot of social life in Malheur County

[ NOTE: The Enterprise is providing free access to this important coverage as a community service. Help us do so: SUBSCRIBE. ]

Malheur County was put on another state list Friday to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, with Gov. Kate Brown urging but not mandating new limits on social gatherings and business operations.

The county was one of five put on a two-week “pause” by the governor because of its high infection rate. The county already has been on the state watch list, and the implications of the new suggestions and requirements wasn’t immediately clear.

Brown said that starting on Wednesday, Nov. 11, Malheur County will have to stop visits to care centers and reduce the maximum number of people dining together in a group to no more than six.

She also again urged businesses to mandate that employees work from home when possible. Brown didn’t order that step, and it’s one state officials have been advising for months.

“We are urging employers to allow employees to work from home to the maximum extent possible,” said Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director.

Many Malheur County businesses have already taken that step, particularly in offices.

“It doesn’t seem like it changes much,” said John Briedenbach, president and CEO of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce.

Most government agencies already have employees working from home when they can.

“There is not a whole lot I can’t do from home except sign checks,” said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager. “We just need to keep doing what we are doing.”

State authorities also said the work-from-home recommendation would not disrupt schools where teachers have returned to provide limited in-person instruction.

But the governor’s most pronounced request was that people restrict social gatherings to their own household. She also asked, however, that if people do meet with others not in their household, such gatherings be limited to six people.

“The idea of these limitations is for people to pick a small number of people to interact with,” said Boyle. “No one should be meeting with different groups of six people several times per week.”

The new measure is intended to stop larger gatherings that have proven to be a source for spreading the coronavirus. In Malheur County, such gatherings were supposed to be limited to 10 people, but health officials said that has been violated repeatedly, including at funerals and holiday parties.

Brown and her top health advisers said Oregonians need to change their holiday gatherings, limiting them to their households. If they had plans for something more, “Please cancel them,” she said.

Her directive, however, didn’t indicate how the social gathering limit would be enforced.

“From the beginning, we have focused on an education-first approach,” said Boyle. “We need Oregonians to take this seriously, and to curtail their social gatherings.”

Brown added four more counties Monday to the “pause” list, which now covers Malheur, Baker, Union, Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Marion, Jackson, and Umatilla counties.

The governor said in a briefing with reporters Friday afternoon that in recent weeks, Covid has spread at an “unprecedented rate” that is “extremely concerning.”

The Oregon Health Authority reported a record of more than 600 cases in one day on Friday, Oct. 30. A week later, that was surpassed by a record 805 cases. On Saturday, the state reported yet another record number of new cases – 988.

“The virus can very quickly snowball out of control,” Brown said. “We’re seeing that in real time. And certainly, lives are at stake.”

The surge hasn’t been as pronounced in Malheur County, but reported infections have started to climb again. The week of Oct. 25, the county reported a total of 58 infections in the community, not connected to Snake River Correctional Institution or care centers. As of Saturday, Nov. 7, cases in the community for the week hit 97.

“The majority of our cases are coming from social events and household contacts and that impacts work places,” said Sara Poe, Malheur County Health Department director. Our community is getting lax at the very worst possible time to do so.”

As of Monday, Malheur County had reported a total of 2,099 cases since the pandemic showed up in March. There have been 37 deaths tied to Covid and four people are currently hospitalized. The county reports 6,698 negative tests.

A worrisome number is the positive testing rate – the percentage of people tested who are turning up infected. The county’s most recent rate was 31% – six times what health and medical authorities say is the rate indicating the virus is under control.

But the figure that triggered the “pause” list was the state’s calculated infection rate. The state said counties with a rate of more than 200 infections per 100,000 population over the most recent two-week period were under the pause directive. Malheur County has been leading the state for weeks, and the most recent infection rate was 446 per 100,000 population – nearly twice the state average.

Brown used her briefing to warn that Oregonians had little time to heed the state’s warnings and act.

She said that while most businesses had been complying with Covid requirements, new limits may be ahead – and soon.

“I need all Oregonians to understand that additional closures may be imminent in two weeks if we don’t see reduced case counts,” Brown said. “It’s absolutely a wakeup call for Oregonians.”

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

GET YOUR LOCAL NEWS FROM REAL PROFESSIONALS: Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE – $5 a month, automatically. DONATE – to provide additional support.