Local Covid case rates reach all-time high

The Omicron variant of the Covid virus is running wild in Malheur County, pushing the number of new cases to new highs. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Omicron is sweeping across Malheur County, pushing case and positivity rates to all-time highs even as the availability of tests for the virus remains tight.

The Malheur County Health Department reported 554 new Covid cases last week – including 188 new cases of the infection over the weekend – pushing the total number of cases in the county since the pandemic began to over 7,000.

The health department also reported two new Covid-related deaths – two men, one in his 70s and the other in his 80s – last week.

A total of 96 county residents have died from Covid-connected illnesses.

The county’s positivity rate stood at 38% Monday.

“That’s the highest positivity rate since early in the pandemic and by far the most cases we’ve seen in a week,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

The high positivity rate – the percentage of those tested who are found to be infected – is troubling, said Poe.

“If you have a test positivity over five percent, you know you are not likely doing enough testing to capture all of the people who are positive. So, it is an inadequate capture of the true level of infection in our community. Thirty-eight percent means we have a lot more than 554 cases,” said Poe.

In response to the growing surge, Poe said the health department is conducting case investigations in high-risk settings – such as long-term care facilities and schools – and advocating vaccinations.

Now, the health department sponsors a walk-in vaccine clinic from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Wednesday.

The health department is also seeking more test kits from the state, said Poe. Recently the health department distributed 400 test kits to adult foster care homes, Lifeways Behavioral Health, Treasure Valley Community College and the Malheur County Jail.

Poe said she also ordered 1,350 more tests from the state, though she said she does not know when they will arrive.

Once the test kits show up, Poe said the health department plans to “create some sort of drive-thru that people can come through and get these kits.”

“We’ve requested the Oregon Health Authority assist with testing,” said Poe.

Poe said there is a nationwide shortage of Covid tests.

Friday, Malheur Drug in Vale received a shipment of 25 at-home Covid testing kits but those won’t last long, said pharmacists Jennifer Tolman.

Tolman said the at-home test kits are flying off the shelves.

Tolman said customers don’t want to wait to visit a clinic or a health care provider.

“People want to test right now,” she said.

Poe said vaccine rates in the county are improving. As of last week, 49% of Malheur County residents received one dose of Covid vaccine while 45% had received two doses.

Those who have received booster, though, remains low, at 16%.

“I am surprised more people have not got the booster and I thought the number would be higher,” said Poe.

Poe said a vaccine is still the best way to avoid a severe case of Covid.

“While the vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease, with this variant we are seeing cases within people who are vaccinated but less cases if they are boosted,” said Poe.

Poe said the most severe cases still remain those who are unvaccinated.

“There is not a lack of vaccine. We have plenty,” said Poe.

The Oregon Health Authority reported a continuing increase in the number of Oregonians hospitalized to treat their virus.

As of Friday, there was not a single intensive care unit bed available in the eastern Oregon region that includes Malheur County, but there were 40 other spaces available in hospitals through the region.

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

Previous coverage:

County reaches grim milestone as nearly 6,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid since pandemic began

Malheur County teeters on the edge of a major crisis as virus spreads

Malheur County health department warns of more Covid hospitalizations, deaths as rates hold

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