Malheur County’s cases take sharp drop as state prepares to lift mask mandate

(The Enterprise/FILE)

Finally, Malheur County isn’t ranked at the bottom when it comes to Covid.

As of Friday, the county was just one of two in Oregon where federal authorities rated the community level of the coronavirus as “low.” Grant County was the other.

Most Oregon counties still rank at a “high” community level, according to the CDC.

The new rating comes as Oregon officials announced that one of the last vestiges of pandemic protocols – mandatory masks – is going away.

Gov. Kate Brown said the requirement to wear masks indoor at public places lifts on Saturday, March 12. The same applies for schools.

The governor took the action as the number of Oregonians hospitalized with Covid continued to drop.

And in Malheur County, reported cases are dropping as sharply as they had risen in recent weeks. For the most recent week, health authorities reported 74 cases – down from the peak of 554 reported for the week of Jan. 16.

Now, attention turns to school districts and school boards as they consider what steps to take next.

The Vale School Board had decided last July what it would do when the mask mandate is lifted, and Superintendent Alisha McBride shared what is coming.

“Face coverings will not be required on Vale School District campuses,” McBride said in a notice to parents.

She said the district would still recommend mask use and social distancing. Testing for Covid will be available to students and employees at the district office, she said.

“As we return to normal operations, we are hopeful that staffing challenges will decrease,” McBride said in an email to the Enterprise. “That being said, staffing challenges are being faced by nearly every employer, and the challenges are not isolated to the field of education. As a result, I am not overly optimistic that removing the face covering requirement for schools will resolve staffing challenges.”

In Nyssa, the school board hasn’t decided what pandemic measures will be recommended but Superintendent Darren Johnson said he would recommend “that we move to life the mask requirement.”

Like McBride, he wasn’t sure the change would help with staffing challenges that have hit schools from the classroom to buses.

“I want the community to know that we are looking forward to returning to normal practices in school, such as seeing a teacher’s face while they are instructing a child, seeing a child’s face as they express the joy of learning, and hearing each other’s voices betters,” Johnson said in an email to the Enterprise.

The Ontario School Board on Monday took the recommendation of Superintendent Nikki Albisu to lift the mask requirement. Students and staff would still have the option to wear masks.

“We will encourage distancing, disinfecting, the use of outdoor spaces as the weather warms up, and asking that any sick or exposed students remain home,” said Taryn Smith, the district’s public information coordinator.

“We understand the potential for another surge to hit or for case numbers to surge again,” Smith said. “If local case numbers rise dramatically, we may be placed in the position to require masking in schools once again.”

Raeshelle Meyer, Adrian School District superintendent, said she was preparing her recommendations on pandemic measures for the Adrian School Board to consider when it meets on Thursday, March 10.

Angie Sillonis, spokeswoman for the Malheur County Health Department, said if schools drop the mask requirements, they will lose the ability to avoid some quarantine measures. Currently, a student or employee exposed to the virus can be tested and avoid immediate quarantining.

State officials have said that if masks aren’t required, schools would have to require immediate quarantine for anyone exposed or infected with the virus.

Despite the mandate change, vaccinations and testing will still be offered throughout the community, Sillonis said.

 She said participation in vaccination clinics has remained steady because of incentives such as gift cards and food baskets have proven attractive.

“We still believe that vaccination is the Number 1 way to get through this,” she said.

About half of Malheur County’s residents 18 and older are vaccinated, according to state data. The county has significantly lagged statewide rates for vaccinations and booster shots.

The county also will sponsor one last large-scale Covid testing event, scheduled for Thursday, March 3, at the Ontario Fire Department station at the Ontario Municipal Airport. The free testing will be available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Anyone needing a ride can arrange one by calling 541-889-3119 by the day before.

The Oregon Child Development Coalition will host a vaccination clinic for all ages on Saturday, March 5, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 20 3rd St. in Ontario.

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