Once a person tests positive for Covid, a team of contact tracers work to track down anyone that a person came into significant contact within a given period. The contacts must then quarantine for 14 days from the last time they had in-person interaction with the Covid patient. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

ONTARIO – Malheur County’s ability to remain open for business with fewer restrictions is at “great risk” as Covid cases have tripled since June 23, the Malheur County Health Department warned Saturday.

The county is showing one of Oregon’s highest rates of infection with the virus, with the total since late March hitting 204 on Saturday.

“The coronavirus is all around us and we need solutions from multiple approaches to get us out of such a dangerous time as quickly as possible,” the health department said in a statement on Saturday.

The county health agency opened a temporary operations center last week at Four Rivers Cultural Center and expanded its staff of contact tracers. The tracers interview those known to be infected with Covid to determine who else they might have infected so those people can be quarantined.

The agency “suspended many public health programs to redirect staff towards our COVID-19 response,” according to Sarah Poe, Health Department director.

The county added its voice to warnings from Gov. Kate Brown that the increase in Covid cases in Malheur County and seven other counties warrants immediate attention.

That could mean county officials act on their own to corral Covid. Since mid-May, restaurants and bars once again could provide sit-down service and churches could hold larger indoor services with social distancing.

But now masks are required to enter any of those establishments and any other public places. Resistance to that state mandate is apparent across the community. Commenters on social media have taken to posting photos of customers at local stores not wearing masks.

County and state officials say the masks and social distancing – staying 6 feet away from others for prolonged periods – are essential to containing Covid.

Number of positive Covid cases since the beginning of June. (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

“Many cases have been linked to gatherings where people are often eating, drinking or talking without face coverings,” the county health department said in its Saturday statement.

“We are at a critical point in this pandemic,” the county statement said. “It is time for the county to pause and reassess readiness as COVID-19 poses such a great risk to our continued reopening.”

The statement addressed the perception among some in the community that the increase in reported Covid cases is the result of more people getting tested.

“Although testing has increased, the positive test rate, which shows the prevalence of the virus, has increased,” the county statement said. “By offering tests to more and more people at a lower threshold, meaning people with fewer or no symptoms are included in testing, the positive rest should go down.”

Instead, the rate of tests coming back positive has soared to 10.2%, indicating the virus is “spreading more rampantly.”

The statement said that “additional restrictions may be made by the state or considered by the county if the rate of positive cases continues to increase.”

The county health agency essentially declared an “all hands on deck” moment in Malheur County to address the developing health crisis.

“We need government advocacy, business adherence to guidance, community-based organization backing and, most importantly, for the people who live and work in Malheur County to take responsibility for their part in protecting our community,” the health department statement said.

Poe amplified that point in an email message Saturday.

“Each of us can model to our family, friends, and coworkers how to do the right thing. Our actions over the next few weeks are crucial,” she said.

A chart produced by the Malheur County Health Department shows that percentage of positive tests has climbed rapidly in recent days.

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