Malheur County gears up for Covid blitz

 Vanessa Turrentine, a registered nurse at Valley Family Health Care, waits for incoming patients wanting to receive a Covid-19 vaccine at their mobile clinic near Nyssa High School on Thursday, Aug. 19. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

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NYSSA – Vanessa Turrentine sat on a low concrete wall in the Nyssa High School’s parking lot, waiting for visitors.

The registered nurse smiled warmly at the occasional passersby, and offered them information about the Covid vaccine.

In front of her, the generator of Valley Family Health Care’s mobile vaccine clinic rumbled, bringing power and air conditioning to the 40-foot-long truck. A sign on the pavement read “walk-ins welcome.”

They rolled into Nyssa on Thursday, Aug. 19, for the mobile clinic’s first session in the city. When the truck was built, no one predicted that it would one day be on the front lines of a pandemic. It still holds a currently unused dental chair and an exam table.

“We just try to adapt and adjust to what is needed in our community,” Turrentine, who is also the clinic’s manager, said.

The clinic had opened its doors that day to a line of 10 people eager to get vaccinated, she said.

“It’s about convenience for people,” Turrentine said.

Such efforts are intended to get enough people in Malheur County vaccinated to keep them out of the hospital, and to keep them alive. But vaccination rates remain low and spot checks of grocery stores and coffee shops showed many people ignoring the state mandate to wear masks inside public places.

Covid cases continue to climb locally, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

“As we anticipated, our numbers are escalating,” said Poe.

The circumstance in Malheur County is expected to get worse in the coming weeks.

Since the pandemic started, 3,925 have tested positive for the virus – one of the highest infection rates in Oregon. In contrast, neighboring Baker County has 1,345 and Harney County 551.

Stemming the infection won’t be easy in a county where 40% of the population has been vaccinated. Health authorities say the level needs to reach 80%.

That would take another 9,785 people over 18 to get vaccinated in Malheur County.

Health authorities are also growing concerned about trends among children.

Adjusted for population, Malheur County has the sixth highest rate in the state of Covid cases for people under 18, according to OHA data. Statewide, children make up 13% of cases.

While severe outcomes of Covid are relatively rare in youth, eight children were hospitalized in Oregon the week of Aug. 8, according to the OHA.

That same week, nine children in Malheur County tested positive for Covid.

Vaccinations are seen as essential to stopping the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

That’s where efforts such as last week’s stop in Nyssa come into play.

Turrentine, the nurse, said the clinic has seen steady numbers in the recent weeks, and that the clinic has been vaccinating between 15 and 40 people per session. The mobile clinic holds weekly clinics in Ontario and Fruitland.

Turrentine said it has been important to educate the community about the vaccine, and to make it as accessible as possible.

When asked what her role in the historic vaccination effort meant to her, Turrentine took a moment and then wiped tears from her eyes.

“I’ve been a nurse for 24 years, and I’m grateful that I can still do it,” she said. “I’m thankful I can still be of service.”

Local, state and national health experts agree that the vaccine is the safest and most effective way to combat the surge in Covid cases. The trend has rapidly worsened in Malheur County.

At the beginning of August, Malheur County had a weekly average of five people a day testing as infected. That number has since skyrocketed.

Poe said new Covid cases last week ranged from 15 to 39 a day.

County officials said last week they plan to use portions of last year’s Covid response playbook to meet the new challenge.

The county Covid task force plans to sponsor a testing and vaccination clinic at the fairground.

The clinic, much like the Covid testing events held last year during the height of the pandemic, will be held on a designated day, said Rich Harriman, Malheur County Emergency Services director.

“After doing it all last year it takes nothing to set up one of these things,” said Harriman.

Harriman said officials are expected to finalize plans this week.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons that translate from the testing sites to the vaccine sites and lessons we can bring to this new response to the Delta variant,” said Harriman.

On Monday, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-Bio-NTech’s Covid vaccine, a move Poe welcomed to overcome hesitancy among many to take the shot.

“Really this is coming down to, ‘We need more people vaccinated.’ I am hopeful many people were just waiting for the formality of the FDA approval,” said Poe.

Poe said the new surge in Covid cases, propelled by the Delta variant of the virus, could produce even more cases than were recorded last year during the first wave of the infection.

“Just because of the sheer number of cases from this Delta variant that is far more transmissible, we are going to have a lot more cases over the next eight weeks than we did last year,” said Poe.

Hospitals across Oregon are struggling to provide enough beds as Covid cases climb and Poe said the situation is a “perfect storm.”

“They (hospitals) are saying they are full now and we anticipate our numbers to go up drastically over the next month or eight weeks,” said Poe.

Poe said the Covid situation locally is “likely going to get worse.”

“We need people to be calling their health care provider or pharmacists when they have even minor symptoms,” said Poe.

Poe also urged local residents to get the Covid vaccine.

The Malheur County Health Department website provides locations to make an appointment to get vaccinated, including pharmacies, Valley Family Health Care locations, and the Walmart in Ontario.

A stack of Valley Family Health Care consent forms for the Covid-19 vaccine stand ready for incoming patients outside their mobile clinic at Nyssa High School on Thursday, Aug. 19. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

To get the word out, the Malheur County Court awarded money to Valley Family Health Care, Snake River Pediatrics and Malheur Drug to promote vaccines and make them more accessible.

Valley Family Health Care is still finalizing its plans for its $35,000, but officials there said it is considering school outreach, a clinic at Treasure Valley Community College and also possible collaboration with Euvalcree to promote vaccines among the Latinx population. Some money may be used for gift cards for those who get the vaccine.

There also is new pressure on school employees and health care workers to get vaccinated, as ordered by Gov. Kate Brown. The governor said she imposed the requirement to slow the flow of Covid patients into hospitals.

On Monday, the Oregon Health Authority reported that two regions of the state had no available intensive care beds needed for the most critically ill.

Last week on Thursday night, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario admitted five people with Covid.

The Saint Alphonsus system reported on Monday that 61 patients with Covid were in its area hospitals, account for one out of every five hospitalizations.

“It’s gotten more busy,” said Dr. Brian Kitamura, medical director of the emergency department in Ontario. “Not like a tidal wave, but busier in degrees.”

Kitamura said that directly prior to speaking with the Enterprise, he had admitted an otherwise healthy 41-year-old with injury to her heart from coronavirus.

For the northeast Oregon region, the state reported five beds available in intensive care units and 44 out of 127 other beds. The region includes Malheur, Baker, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties.

The majority of the Covid hospitalizations are of unvaccinated individuals, according to State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger. The most recent data from OHSU showed 83% of those hospitalized for Covid and 95% with Covid in the ICU at their facilities were unvaccinated.

“If you are unvaccinated, you have never been more vulnerable to being sickened by the virus, passing the virus onto your loved ones, getting seriously ill or even dying from COVID-19,” Sidelinger said. “If you are unvaccinated, you are risking the health of your family, your loved ones, and anyone you encounter while infected.”

But that mandate is getting pushback from the state association of nurses and some school and state employees.

The Oregon Nurses Association contested the governor’s mandate, saying her decision “to mandate vaccinations for health care workers may ultimately exacerbate an already dangerous staffing crisis in hospitals across the state.”

While health care employers are prohibited by law from requiring workers to get vaccinated, the law gives the governor the power to impose that mandate and require health workers to be vaccinated.

A federal vaccine mandate also has been put in place for nursing homes.

Currently, 56% of the skilled nursing staff at Pioneer Place Assisted Living in Vale is vaccinated, according to CEO Chris Monroe. He said they have started a campaign to educate staff about the vaccine, but said he would not fire any employee who refused vaccination.

“It certainly is disturbing because at this point in time we – like all other facilities and businesses – are having difficulty finding staff,” Monroe said. “I don’t believe the White House has given adequate consideration for all the effects this will have.”

Currently, he said the staff screens all employees and visitors, and tests unvaccinated employees weekly. All new residents are placed in quarantine for 14 days, and all employees wear masks and eye protection at all times.

“It’s been adequate without having a fully vaccinated staff,” Monroe said.

The facility has had a total of 39 cases and two deaths tied to Covid since the start of the pandemic, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s Aug. 18 data.

Back-to-school season makes the vaccine and masking requirements especially timely for health care officials.

Nyssa High School hosted its back-to-school night on Thursday, with the Valley Family Health mobile clinic parked outside. Some Malheur County schools were already in session, and others were just days away from the first bell of the year.

Brett Jackman, Nyssa High School principal, wearing a mask and greeting families, said that around two-thirds of his staff is already vaccinated. He was optimistic about getting the staff fully vaccinated, and will be implementing the mask mandate and social distancing for students.

“I tell parents that we get to be in person, we get to have these sports and all these activities, but the price we pay is getting masks,” Jackman said.

The school will have greeters at each door ensuring students have masks, and those who refuse will be educated about Covid. Jackman said that he thinks there won’t be many issues, but there is an option to treat noncompliance as a dress code violation.


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News tip? Contact reporters

Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Abbey McDonald by email at [email protected].

Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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