A focus on testing - along with beefing up the number of contact tracers - are two ways the Malheur County Health Department plans to meet a sudden surge in COVID-19 virus cases. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – Malheur County health officials are keeping a wary eye on the rising number of local COVID-19 cases and on a nearby county, where cases of the respiratory illness surged last week, as they craft a blueprint to meet a sudden, local outbreak.

 “I would say we’d rather be overprepared than underprepared,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

Cases of the novel coronavirus exploded in Union County – north of Malheur County – last week when more than 200 people attending a local church were infected.

“It is a caution flag for us, to see very quickly you could have this kind of outbreak if people do not take this seriously. It is very likely completely across their county,” said Poe.

Poe said a recent spike in local COVID-19 cases is also worrisome. 

Poe said Saturday 15 new positive COVID-19 cases were reported over the past week – from June 14 to June 20.

Three more people who tested positive for the coronavirus were reported Monday, pushing the county total to 53. The health department reported two people – a male in his 60s and a female in her 20s – are hospitalized at Boise area hospitals because of the virus.

A local woman over the age of 80 who was hospitalized last week because of a COVID-19 virus infection has since been released and is recovering from home, said Poe.

Poe said preparations for a surge in COVID-19 virus are already underway. The county plans to confront an outbreak in three ways.

First, said Poe, the health department plans to contract with Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario to create a temporary emergency command center if a major outbreak erupts.

The facility, will provide ample space for health officials to maintain social distancing and collect services and planning resources in one place, Poe said.

The second step is to increase the number of contract tracers. Poe said her agency is “working on having every health department employee trained” as a contact tracer. Now, she said, her agency has nine contract tracers but expects to deploy as many as 30 by the end of the month.

“Contact tracing is absolutely a huge piece of this,” said Poe.

Once a person tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, said Poe, tracing their movements and identifying where they were and who they had personal contact with is crucial to contain the virus. The process is time consuming, said Poe, and includes making phone calls, sending letters and home visits.

“Without identifying the source of who is infected, we are only going to see more and more cases,” said Poe. “We follow up with people in a culturally appropriate, compassionate way.”

A third step to prepare for an outbreak, said Poe, is continued testing.

“We will continue to offer drive-up testing sites and surveillance testing for high-risk facilities and request additional testing supplies as needed from the state,” said Poe.

While individual health care providers in the county have their own stock of tests, the county depends on supplies from the Oregon Health Authority. Poe said estimated Saturday the county has about 150 COVID-19 tests.

The county must administer all those tests before the state will issue more, said Poe.

Poe said her agency would also work on a regional level to dip into a larger pool of contact tracers if there is an outbreak on the scale of the one in Union County.

Poe said the good news is local health care providers are ready to help in the case of an outbreak.

“They have back-ups for PPE (personal protective equipment),” said Poe.

Poe also said area hospitals also have ample capacity.

Poe said the watchword going forward will be a familiar one.

“We really need the community to be monitoring for symptoms and to stay home when they have symptoms,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or at 541-235-1003.

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