Malheur County Emergency Services Director Rich Harriman makes a point during a briefing after a Covid vaccine event last week at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – The number of Covid cases in Malheur County declined sharply last week and while the sudden drop is cause for optimism, local health officials remain wary.

“A significant drop is certainly an attention getter. But we’ve had past fluctuations of numbers. They can fluctuate from one day to the next,” said Erika Harmon, public information officer for the Malheur County Health Department.

Malheur County reported no new Covid cases Wednesday, Feb. 10, one case Thursday, Feb. 11, and zero cases on Friday, Feb. 12.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said it is “important to take things a week or two at a time.”

“We have had a huge reduction (in cases). We hope that continues for sure,” said Poe.

While the data from last week is positive, the county remains under state measures at extreme risk for continued spread of the virus. The extreme risk category means indoor dining – among a host of other restrictions – at restaurants is banned, though take-out service is available.

For the week of Jan. 24 through Feb. 6, the county reported 98 Covid cases for a rate of 306 people per 100,000. The county’s positive rate for Covid testing stood at 7.7%.

Since the pandemic hit Malheur County in March, 3,298 people have been infected and 56 died with conditions related to the virus.

To drop out of the extreme risk category, though, the county must record 60 or less Covid cases over a two-week period and a case rate of 200 or less infections per 100,000 people along with an overall positive testing rate of less than 10%.

Poe said the sudden drop in the positivity rate was most likely because of a large testing event held at Vale High School on Feb. 5.

“That was not a regular planned event. So, I am not sure what the rate would have been without doing that testing event,” said Poe.

The Vale testing was triggered by an outbreak of Covid cases among students at the high school.

Poe said that county residents must continue to get Covid tests.

“Especially those who think they were exposed. It would be frustrating as a community to have reduced the spread of Covid but not be able to get out of the extreme risk category because fewer people are testing,” said Poe.

Poe said feedback she received from area health care agencies is fewer people are showing up for planned Covid test events.

“We are asking the community to still test. Because it is an important piece to detecting asymptomatic infections and making sure people know when they are infected but also to make sure we get the positivity rate down,” said Poe.

Poe said her department does believe there are fewer people sick with Covid in Malheur County. However, she warned, the circumstance could change fast.

“Moving forward, don’t think because we are under 10% (positivity rate) we will stay under ten. Without another big event like we did, which we are not planning on doing again, there is a risk,” said Poe.

Poe said the behavior of the community – with more people wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines – also made a difference.

“People are following the precautions and when we have cases, people are staying home and that significantly reduces the spread. We don’t want to reverse that,” said Poe.

Another factor in the reduced rate, said Poe, is the county’s Covid vaccination program.

“We’ve vaccinated thousands of people in our community and I am hopeful because I really have faith in this vaccine,” said Poe.

Last week the health department completed 439 vaccinations of both the initial inoculations and the booster. So far, more than 5,000 doses of vaccine have been administered in Malheur County.

Now, said Poe, is the time for residents to be especially vigilant.

“We are entering a critical time. If people are not getting tested and stop following precautions we risk having outbreaks and it sets us back that much further,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at 541-473-3377.

Previous coverage:

Pandemic in Malheur County boosts substance abuse by kids, adults

New statistics show Covid evenly distributed across Malheur County

Malheur County's COVID-19 cases jump for the second day in a row, doubling in less than a week

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