ONTARIO – The level of alarm for county health officials jumped significantly Thursday after 13 new COVID-19 virus cases were confirmed, pushing the total number of coronavirus cases locally to 73.

The county is on a “precipice” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, and without a major contribution from the public the number of virus infections will continue to climb.

She said Thursday that the community is at “a high risk of a large outbreak.”

The new cases haven’t been traced to a major source such as an employer or gathering.

“It is community spread and it is definitely very concerning for everyone. We really need everyone to avoid unnecessary gatherings and to wear face coverings diligently when they are around anyone they don’t live with,” said Poe.

The number of virus cases locally have been steadily rising for more than two weeks. June 11 the county reported 33 cases but a week later, on June 18, there were 43 new coronavirus cases.

In the past 12 days, the county reported 38 new cases.

On Thursday the county reported it conducted 1,268 COVID-19 tests and registered 1,195 negatives. Thirty-three people are reported recovered from the illness.

The state reported 124 new confirmed 19 virus cases Thursday. A total of 7,568 COVID-19 cases are confirmed in Oregon.

Poe said one piece of good news was the number of negative COVID-19 tests increased by 70 Thursday.

“So that is good and it is good people are getting tested. We need anybody with even mild symptoms and especially anyone who has had exposure to a case, to stay home and call your health care provider,” said Poe.

Yet local health officials remain troubled the percentage of people testing positive for the virus continues to increase.

Wednesday the county reported 5.1% of those tested were turning up positive. The new cases today pushed that rate to 5.7%. A week ago, the county’s rate was 3.8%. The state average is 3.7%.

Poe said the mounting positive rate is also worrisome because the county reduced testing conditions so people with less severe symptoms and those with no symptoms are now being evaluated..

“Even with significantly increased testing, the rate is going up and that means we need to do more testing and it is not just the result of increased testing. It is the result of spread,” said Poe.

Poe said Thursday only one county resident – from a high of four - remains hospitalized for the illness.

When the county 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.

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 a local COVID-19 virus task force would “determine the need to continue to hold, or take steps backward, until the curve of the outbreak flattens or projects downward.”

Poe said earlier this week that there were no plans to adjust the county status. The county is now in Phase 2 of a state reopening plan.

Poe said a decision regarding whether to hold or move back from Phase 2 would not be made by the county but by the state.

However, last week Union County elected leaders chose to move back voluntarily to Phase 1 in the wake of a massive outbreak traced to a church.

Poe said earlier that the county is crafting a plan to meet a sudden COVID-19 virus outbreak which includes deploying more contact tracers, standing up a temporary emergency command center and more testing.

Poe said Thursday the emergency plan isn’t in effect yet.

She appealed to the community to practice social distancing measures.

“If our community reacts quickly and goes about daily life as though the coronavirus could potentially be around ,that is the only way we can flatten the curve,” said Poe.

“People need to act as if they have it,” said Poe.

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

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