Rising Covid cases sound alarm bells for area health officials

Cases of Covid are on the rise in Oregon and in Malheur County, prompting health officials to urge residents to get vaccinated. (The Enterprise/FILE).

ONTARIO – A man stopped by the Malheur County Health Department recently to get vaccinated against Covid, but he remained uneasy.

The man asked once he was vaccinated if he would shed a spike protein and give someone else Covid.

Sarah Poe, the health department director, assured the man he wouldn’t shed a spike protein but the question and the information behind it personifies the struggle for health officials to convince people to get vaccinated.

“It was misinformation. What we know for sure is you cannot give Covid to someone else if you are not infected,” said Poe.

Since nearly the beginning of the Covid pandemic, a counter-narrative appeared of deep-state conspiracies and potential health risks from the vaccines that baffled and frustrated doctors and health care officials.

Especially in rural areas of the nation, resistance to the Covid vaccine runs hard and deep. Oregon is a microcosm of that trend. Some Oregon counties – such as Washington – recorded a 75% vaccination rate while others – such as mostly rural Lake and Malheur – are far below that mark.

Lake holds a 37% vaccination rate, the worst in the state. Malheur County is right behind with a 38% vaccination rate.

“We are up against so much disinformation and there are people profiting and getting a ton of attention spreading lies,” said Poe. Health officials in recent days at all levels of government have been stepping up their calls to get vaccinated as one way to slow the new spread of the coronavirus.

And they are resorting to masking as another measure.

Oregon state workers now are mandated to wear masks and so are children and teachers in schools. Federal employees who can’t show they are vaccinated must also mask up.

There is expected to be strong pushback against such requirements in rural Oregon, and Poe has faced such pressures before.

Poe said she has faced questions about why the vaccine is still in a trial status and therefore not completely safe.

“You are not participating in a trial when you get a vaccine from your health care provider. The vaccine has emergency approval. They still have to go through rigorous testing to get emergency use authorization,” said Poe.

The low vaccination rate for places like Malheur and Lake counties creates added risk as Covid cases continue to climb, propelled by the Delta variant of the disease.

“I am very worried about what could happen for our community that has over 60% of our eligible population unprotected. That will very likely result in some people getting very sick and some people dying where it is completely preventable,” said Poe.

In recent weeks, area health officials began to raise the alarm about the rise in Covid cases and the Delta variant.

Infographic by ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise

On July 22, top health leaders in Idaho, including Dr. Steven Nemerson, chief clinical officer for the Saint Alphonsus Health System, Dr. Jim Souza, chief physician executive of St. Luke’s Health System and Dr. David Peterman, chief executive officer of Primary Health, delivered a stark message during a news conference.

All three said Covid case rates are on the rise and most patients admitted to hospitals are not vaccinated.

A Covid surge is already occurring, said Nemerson.

“We don’t know how bad this is going to get and we don’t want it to get completely out of control,” said Nemerson.

Hospitals in the Treasure Valley are now in a struggle to handle a large influx of Covid patients because of the number of people already in a medical facility recovering from elective surgeries and other ailments.

During Covid, said Nemerson, many people neglected elective surges or health care and are “becoming sicker.”

“Related to that, they are staying longer in the hospital as a result,” said Nemerson.

A new paradigm

Oregon lifted Covid restrictions June 30, but the virus didn’t vanish, said Poe.

“The risk has never gone away,” she said.

What is new is the Delta variant of Covid. The variant was detected in India last winter. It first appeared in the U.S. in March and spread fast. Now it is the main strain of Covid in the U.S. The variant is highly contagious and appears to impact unvaccinated people the most.

“We are not seeing Covid largely in the vaccinated population,” said Souza.

Last week, federal, state and local health officials recommended universal mask use in public indoor areas as cases of the Delta variant of Covid climbed regionally and across the nation.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on July 27 recommended that all Americans – whether vaccinated or not – don a mask indoors in public if in an area where new Covid cases are surging.

The CDC recommendation is not a mandate, but guidance. However, Oregon and Malheur County quickly followed suit with similar advice.

The Oregon Health Agency said it moved to follow the CDC because of a “large jump in cases and hospitalizations and new national guidance calling for masking measures to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.”

Locally, Poe said her agency is also now recommending the use of masks indoors in public places.

Last week, Covid cases locally began to climb at an alarming rate, said Poe. As of Monday, the health department recorded 16 new Covid cases since Thursday.

“That’s incredible. It is significant. We were averaging between 1 and 3 cases a day over the last month or six weeks.

Also, the Covid infection positivity rate – a key gauge of the progress of the virus locally – showed a steady uptick.

For the week of July 4 through July 17, the health department recorded 15 Covid cases and a test positivity rate of 7.6%

But from July 11 through July 24, the health department documented 28 new Covid cases and a test positivity rate of 7.9%.

As of Monday, 3,666 people in Malheur County have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since last March and 67 died.

Poe said the county faces a “surge” in Covid cases.

 “The test positivity rate went up again. That really means that there are very likely far more cases out there,” said Poe.

Poe said “typically people are infecting at least one other person.”

A new, long-lasting boost in Covid cases is “not inevitable,” said Poe.

“Because we have testing availability and the vaccine,” said Poe.

Area health systems have also instituted other measures in the wake of the spike in cases.

Saint Alphonsus Health System, for example, now requires all employees to be vaccinated.

“Colleagues, providers, volunteers, vendors and contractors, the whole kit and caboodle,” said Mark Snider, Saint Alphonsus Health System spokesman.

Snider said Saint Alphonsus Health System employees have until Sept. 21 to get vaccinated. Snider said the health system employs about 6,000 people in Oregon and Idaho.

However, the new mandate doesn’t cover Saint Alphonsus employees in Baker City and Ontario.

St. Luke’s Health System will also require Covid vaccines for its employees, said spokesman Taylor Reeves last week.

Oregon law prohibits the health system from requiring its employees to be vaccinated.

With the start of school just over the horizon the new recommendations are especially relevant locally and across the state.

The CDC in its advisory last placed special emphasis on masking in educational settings.

Even as it stopped short of recommending universal indoor masking for all people, federal officials recommended such masking “for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

Poe said the key message for the public is to get tested if symptoms of Covid appear.

“Because we need to both prevent infections and manage those cases that are identified so they don’t spread. Be tested with even mild symptoms,” said Poe.

How big a factor the Delta variant of the virus is in the sudden climb in local infections is hard to determine, said Poe.

“However, I am hearing that it is accounting for about half of the cases in Oregon and the big surge in northeast Oregon where they are struggling the most right now. We also know there are significant variant counts within 100 miles in Idaho. So, I think the variant is contributing significantly,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporters Liliana Frankel or Pat Caldwell at 541-473-3377.

Previous coverage:

Heartbreaking loss of Vale father from Covid resonates for local family

Malheur County’s Covid case count shows sharp decline

Lag in receiving Covid test results contributing to out of control spread in Malheur County

As new Covid cases remain steady the emphasis shifts to more testing

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