Restrictions due to COVID-19 have halted gatherings including the face-to-face group meetings that have long been a mainstay of addiction treatment and counseling. (CDC file art)

ONTARIO – The coronavirus warning light for Malheur County is flashing red.

That’s because despite more testing for the illness – and lower standards to get a test – the number of people with the virus continues to climb and the overall percentage of cases is rising.

Two new cases of the virus – both males, one in his 20s and the other under the age of 19 – were reported today. The two new cases push number of people infected with the virus in Malheur County to 60.

The county has recorded 25 new cases in the past 11 days. When it submitted its plan to the state for permission to ease restrictions, the county said 20 new cases in a week would trigger a careful review by the county.

The county plan said with such a level of new cases, “a hold could be placed on moving forward with any other public life or business sector reopening to allow time for more case investigation to occur. The plan, submitted in May, said the local task force would “determine the need to continue to hold, or take steps backward, until the curve of the outbreak flattens or projects downward.”

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said there are no plans to adjust the county’s status. That decision, she said, would not be made at the county level but by the state.

“What we’ve heard from the state was their intention was not to go backwards,” said Poe.

Before any move was made to tighten restrictions again, other measures – such as a requirement to wear face masks in public – would be instituted, said Poe.”

Particularly troubling to Poe, though, is that the percentage of people testing positive for the virus has been increasing.

On Wednesday, the county reported 5.1% of those tested were turning up positive. The state average is 3.7%. A week ago, the county’s rate was 3.8%

The number is significant because in the face of increased testing, health officials would expect that rate to decline.

Poe said the rising positive rate is especially concerning because the county reduced testing guidelines to include people with less severe symptoms and those with no symptoms.

What that means for county residents is the virus is spreading locally at a steady pace, said Poe.

“As we test more and get a higher percentage of positives, that tells us we need to do more testing and that the virus is spreading,” said Poe. “The trend is going in the wrong direction. We should expect to see the positive rate go down as we expand testing and it is not.”

The 60 positive cases dates back to late March, when Malheur County reported its first case. The county said 33 people have recovered, two remain hospitalized, and two have been released after hospital treatment.

So far, the health department has tested 1,186 people in the county. Of those people, 1,126 tested negative.

There is widespread impact of the virus in the community, she said.

The hardware store in Adrian, for instance, closed for two weeks after an employee tested positive, according to the store owner.

Poe said her department is boosting contract tracing efforts to combat the boost in coronavirus cases.

“We are trying to make sure those at high risk are quarantined so they don’t unknowingly spread it to other people,” said Poe.

Poe said the county is will continue raising awareness and educating people and area businesses about the virus. Public testing, she said, will also continue.

A testing site is planned for Wednesday, July 1, in Ontario at the Malheur County Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The virus is also on the rise across the Snake River in Idaho.

Payette County listed 48 COVID-19 virus cases Wednesday while Washington County reported 96 cases of the malady.

The local boost in positive COVID-19 virus cases follows a national and state trend.

Wednesday, the state reported 171 new cases to push the total for Oregon to 7,444. U.S. authorities said Wednesday saw a record number of new cases across the country.

In Oregon, new cases of the virus were reported in 17 counties. The spike marks the fourth week that newly reported virus cases increased over the previous week. During the week ending June 21, the Oregon Health Authority recorded 1,263 cases of the virus, a 40 percent increase over the week before.

The state reported Wednesday the severity of the virus may be weakening.

“Available evidence suggests the average severity of the illness among reported cases is lower than it was early in the outbreak,” said the Oregon Health Authority in a press release.

The state also reported that hospitalizations and deaths from the virus remain “well below their peaks, even after reported cases have been increasing for four weeks and the percentage of emergency department visits attributable to COVID-19-like symptoms remains below 1 percent.”

Poe said local residents are the key player in slowing the spread of the virus.

“We need the public to be proactive and realize there could be positive cases around them and reduce their risk by following precautionary measures,” said Poe.

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

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