Amber Harriman of Fruitland, Idaho, has her nose swabbed by county health care worker MaryLue Galligar at the Ontario Covid testing site on July 1. Harriman works in Ontario. Anyone who lives or works in Malheur County is eligible for screening. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

ONTARIO – Covid virus cases appear to be evenly distributed across the larger towns in the county, according to data released by the Malheur County Health Department late Thursday.

The agency reported 20 new cases Thursday, driving the total for Malheur County to 160. That is a record number of cases in a single day since the first case was reported in late March.

New data by zip code shows 19 Covid cases in Nyssa, 63 in Ontario and 15 in Vale as of Wednesday, July 1.

The rest of the positive cases of the illness are areas with less than 1,000 people, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

A surge in Covid cases began in mid-June when the county had a total of 43 cases of the malady. From there, though, Covid cases began to steadily rise and climbed to 60 by June 24 and then to 108 June 30.

“Part of what is concerning is our cases are not tied to a single outbreak,” said Poe.

Malheur County health officials can’t identify the source for nearly half of its recent Covid infections, which produces a tougher challenge to stop the growing number of infections.

Also troubling is that the percentage of those tested turning up positive has been climbing steadily, hitting 8.9% on Thursday. That’s considerably higher than the state average and well above what the county in May designated as a level that would be concerning – 5%.

Of the 160 cases, 46 have recovered and the health department has tested 1,792 people, of which 1,632 tested negative for the virus.

While the virus begins to circulate throughout the county it appears to be impacting specific age groups the most.

Health Deparment statisics show 45 Covid cases in the 20-29 age category - by far the largest number of any age group. The next highest number of cases – 28 – is in the 0-19 age group.

“Our numbers are trending younger than many other areas but we also have a younger community. Also, they are people who are more active at work and in their social lives,” said Poe.

Poe said a lack of understanding regarding the importance of quarantine measures is also a factor in the growing number of cases among young people.

“Some may not understand the importance of quarantine or isolation if they don’t feel sick,” said Poe.

Three people from the county are hospitalized in Boise, including a man who is on ventilator.

The number of people who seek to be tested for the virus is also climbing, said Poe.

On July 1, the health department sponsored a testing site at the Malheur County Fairgrounds where 239 people were tested. The last time the health department sponsored a testing site at the fairgrounds last month, nine people showed.

“The majority of the people had symptoms” on Wednesday, said Poe. “So, a lot of people are sick and a lot of people were exposed to a positive case.”

Ken Hart, president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, said the hospital is treating more people in the emergency room with Covid symptoms.

“We are starting to see really sick people,” said Hart.

Hart said the hospital is sending Covid cases to Boise area hospitals.

“They have more capacity. But when, and if, Boise would get full then we'd start to keep them here. We are ready to keep them here if we need to but at this point we don’t have to,” said Hart.

Poe said the county is now at a crossroads in terms of virus. The public and local businesses play a pivotal role in slowing the spread of the virus through social distancing, donning masks and avoiding large gatherings.

“If we don’t flatten the curve through public solidarity then I am sure other measures will have to be taken either at the county or state level,” said Poe.

The health department shifted more resources toward contact tracing and case investigation this week, said Poe. As part of that shift, a contact tracing and case investigation command center was established at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

The effort to slow the spread of the virus will “take a lot of effort” by the community, said Poe.

“Right now, the trajectory (of cases) is going up high fast. We are trying to buy time until we have life-saving treatments and vaccines,” said Poe.

Poe, along with state officials, recommend residents do not travel during the holiday weekend.

“Staying at home with those you live with is the safest way to celebrate during the pandemic,” said Poe.

Poe said if people do plan to gather for a traditional holiday barbecue or other festivities they should keep the group small.

“People should wear face coverings and still maintain social distancing at all times,” said Poe.

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

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