Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director receives a Covid test recently. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – The status of the Covid virus in Malheur County has not changed dramatically in the past two months and a key objective to help contain the Covid virus revolves around testing.

That was the message from Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director Friday.

Health department statistics show a relatively steady number of new cases of the infection during the past few weeks. Still, the county is far away from the state benchmark – 30 new cases over a three-week period – to permit students to return to area classrooms on a full-time basis.

Overall, the number of new cases has slowly declined. A month ago, the county reported 132 news for the week of Aug. 23. For last week, total new cases were 90.

“It’s been fairly consistent since the beginning of July. We had some outbreaks that spiked our numbers, but overall Covid is in our community. Many people are sick and many have died and many are passing it without knowing it,” said Poe.

Covid cases locally spiked in early July, then dropped before a slow, but steady, rise.

But that drop wasn’t “statistically significant,” said Poe.

“It was all within a difference of six cases per day. The big spike (in cases) we had was the result of mass testing from an outbreak,” said Poe.

As of Tuesday, the health department reported 1,638 Covid cases in the county. A total of 6,899 people has been tested with 5,261 reporting negative results. The county’s cumulative positive test rate stood at 23.7%. The state goal for the cumulative positive test rate is 5%. The age group from 20 to 29 leads all other age groups with 307 cases. Friday, the Oregon Department of Corrections confirmed the death of an inmate between the age of 65 and 75 at the prison. Also Friday, the health department reported a 45-year-old male died of a Covid infection, pushing the total number of deaths from the infection in the county to 27.

On Monday, the health department reported three more deaths - including two inmates at SRCI - pushing the total number of deaths to 30.

The county reported one Covid-related death in June, 10 deaths in July, nine in August and 10 so far for September.

Meanwhile, the Covid case count in Oregon continued to climb. Friday, the Oregon Health Authority announced 457 new and presumptive Covid cases, the highest daily count since the beginning of the pandemic in the state.

Covid outbreaks at Snake River Correctional Institution and at nursing homes in the county pushed up the total number of cases of the infection. Yet statistics from the health department show that even after those numbers are removed from the total case count, the county is still far from reaching state goals to open schools.

Total reported positive Covid infections during the past three weeks – with the prison and nursing home case data withheld - show there were 148 new cases.

Now, Poe said the main challenge is not enough people seek to be tested. Also of concern, said Poe, is the number of people potentially showing no signs of the infection who are infecting others.

“We need more testing and what is difficult is there are a lot of people who are infected with this virus who don’t show symptoms,” said Poe.

Poe said the health department now has enough testing supplies for the future.

“We need anybody with symptoms to get tested so their contacts can be traced. We need people to call and get tested,” said Poe.

Testing is important, she said, because it allows health officials to “find out who is infected in our community and isolate them. We have to stop the spread.”

“Just staying home won’t work because we have so many people who are asymptomatic,” said Poe.

Poe said she understands the public is “tired of this.”

“But we need more people following stricter guidelines. It is still back to what activities do you have to do and when engaged in public life you have to be extremely careful,” said Poe.

Poe said the community as a whole performed well in the early stages of the pandemic in March and April.

“But that was not when we had all of our cases,” said Poe. “People should be assuming when they go out in public, work, school, restaurants, that the people around them our potentially infectious.”

Poe urged residents to contact their primary care provider for a Covid test.

The health department can offer limited testing for those who have symptoms or without insurance. Poe said Rite Aid in Ontario also offers Covid testing.

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

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