Covid cases are once again showing a slight, but steady, climb upward locally. (The Enterprise/FILE).
ONTARIO – Malheur County is seeing Covid infections on the rise again in a county with relatively low vaccination rates that has already endured 8,000 cases and 108 deaths.
“Our cases have been going up steadily but we are not quite where we were with the omicron and delta surges,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.
The health department knows cases are inching up because of the coronavirus sewer surveillance program managed by Oregon State University.
The program, which began two years ago, tests Ontario’s wastewater to detect the prevalence of the RNA backbone of the virus. RNA is essentially a molecule that is the “brain” of a gene and it plays a key role in coding, decoding and regulation of a specific gene.
“The best indication we have is wastewater concentration (of the virus),” said Poe.
The results from the program lag by about two weeks but the last report, said Poe, showed the virus still retains a firm grip on the county.
Poe said more than half of the wastewater samples tested recently contained the Covid virus.
“While our cases reported over the last month averaged about 20 cases per 100,000 people, the wastewater samples estimate about 110 cases per 100,000 people. This isn’t a perfect way to understand what the risk is in the community but it is a good indicator,” said Poe.
At the same time, the health department is reporting fewer positive Covid tests because a large number of local residents are using home infection tests where results aren’t always reported to the government, said Poe.
“We are aware of many people who are testing positive at home and not reporting,” said Poe.
Cases of Covid appear to be stable across the Saint Alphonsus Health System, said spokesman Mark Snider.
“We are not busting at the seams with Covid patients,” said Snider.
Yet Poe said neither the county nor the nation is past the Covid pandemic, though she said she was “heartened that it seems with increased immunity and treatments we have fewer people hospitalized and definitely fewer people are dying.”
“But we just have such a vulnerable community,” said Poe.
Poe said her chief worry is that with continued mutations of the virus, more people who are not vaccinated will be defenseless.
“Just because you had immunity to a previous variant does not provide you with long-term protection. We do know the boosters work against severe disease but we don’t have enough people vaccinated,” said Poe.
About 48% of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid. In Baker County, 70.6% of the total population is fully vaccinated while the figure in Union County is 49.7%.
The county lags in certain vaccination categories and that remains troubling, said Poe.
To reach an 80% vaccination rate in Malheur County for those 18 years and older more than 7,000 individuals still need to be inoculated.
Now, just over 50% of the 18 and older population in the county received a Covid vaccination.
According state statistics, 12,552 county residents received at least one dose of a Covid vaccination while 11,575 completed a full series of inoculations. Just over 5,000 people received a booster dose in the county.
The relatively local low vaccination rate compared to the state – where 76.4% of the population 18 and older has completed a full series of inoculations – tends to create grimmer overtones for Malheur County because of its inherent vulnerabilities.
Those vulnerabilities include a high poverty rate – Malheur County’s poverty rate is 23%, the second highest in the state – along with crowded housing and lack of transportation.
Poe said residents should remember they can at no charge order three rounds of in-home Covid tests at covidtests.gov or the tests can be picked up at the Malheur County Health Department. Poe also wants to remind residents that if someone does test positive for Covid they should isolate for five days.
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