Malheur County Health Department grapples with switch in how state measures Covid test results

A decision by the state in December changed the way Covid results are reported at the county level. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Malheur County residents may have noticed a change in the way the county reports Covid cases and the positivity rate, providing less information then previously disclosed.

The county website reports only weekly totals and no longer provides daily updates on the number of cases, virus tests and positivity rates that help measure the impact of Covid in the community.

The switch is the result of changes at the state level that are out of the control of the Malheur County Health Department.

In early December, the state modified its computerized Covid tracking system to make it more efficient.

The modification did improve efficiency but it also meant the daily case numbers and positivity rate were logged at the state, and not the county, level.

The change eased the load on Malheur County workers.

“It was incredibly slow and making it hard for case investigators to do their job and enter data,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director. 

State health officials also shifted from gauging the daily case count and positivity rate to a weekly review of those statistics.

“You have to sort of look at it a week at a time,” said Poe.

The ability to measure daily Covid cases and the positivity rate locally was once a key metric officials needed to use in considering reopening schools.

Previously, to open schools for in-person instruction in Malheur County, the county had to record no more than 30 Covid cases in the past 14 days and a test positivity rate of 5% or less.

The state change meant the Malheur County Health Department could no longer monitor those two metrics, in theory reducing its ability to gauge whether the county was on track to open local schools.

That potential hurdle evaporated Dec. 23, when Gov. Kate Brown directed state officials to put measures into place to allow schools to reopen by mid-February and left the decision on opening to the local districts.

Brown said authorities at the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education should work with schools “with the goal of preparing more Oregon schools, especially elementary schools, to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15.”

Almost all schools in Malheur County have been shuttered for months – with only limited in-person instruction along with on-line distancing learning. Adrian and Harper reopened this week.

The new avenue to reopening came as school officials warned that the remote education template wasn’t working for many students.

Vale, Ontario and Adrian school districts all reported an increase in the failure rate among high school students during distance learning.

“All those metrics that were so elaborate don’t apply to schools anymore. The attention to the daily rates definitely doesn’t have the same impact as they did prior to the governor’s change for schools,” said Poe.

Most counties, unlike Malheur County, did not report the daily Covid positivity rate.

The big change for Malheur County, said Poe, is the health department’s ability to access raw daily case count and positivity rate data.

“We are not able to report those same numbers in the same way. We can still tell people if things are getting better or worse, so I still feel like we have a local sense of how things are going,” said Poe.

A report on the number of people hospitalized with Covid is also no longer posted on the health department website.

Poe said the health department often faced reporting delays from area hospitals.

“There was also the concern we were creating additional burden to the hospitals,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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