The Moderna injection is one of the Covid vaccines being used in Malheur County. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – The possibility Malheur County will return to more stringent Covid restrictions continues to grow as vaccinations – seen by officials as key to ending the pandemic – lag.

Meanwhile, Covid cases are on the rise as is the county’s overall positivity rate, two crucial benchmarks to determine where the county falls in the state’s restriction matrix.

Malheur County remains the second worst in Oregon for vaccination rates. According to state data through April 26, 7,670 people received a vaccination in the county – including 6,249 people who received both Covid shots – with 1,421 awaiting a second inoculation. Just over 1,000 shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been used.

Malheur County’s vaccination rate – per 10,000 population – was 2,395. Benton County – the state’s best for vaccination rates – was 5,188.

Meanwhile, county health department statistics show cases of the infection began to climb early in April. During the week of March 21 through April 3 the health department reported 15 Covid cases and a positivity rate of 2.9%. The week of March 28 through April 10 the health department reported 25 Covid cases and a positivity rate of 4.3%. The week ending April 17 the health department reported 27 Covid cases and a positivity rate of 4.9%.

The rise in cases isn’t difficult to understand, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

Neither is the solution, she said. The key is vaccinations, said Poe.

“If people are fully vaccinated, they can gather in small groups without masks, but the risk of an outbreak when people gather without masks and without vaccinations is very high,” said Poe.

Poe said her department is “concerned” about the upsurge in cases.

“First, most of the infections identified in the last several weeks are sporadic, meaning they aren’t attributable to an outbreak and with rising test positivity rates, it indicates we likely have more community spread than we are catching with testing,” said Poe.

Poe said a rise in cases in Idaho and Oregon “contributes to our risk.”

“If our vaccinations rates don’t improve quickly, we are more at risk, especially to more transmissible variants of the coronavirus. Vaccination is what will prevent outbreaks, save lives and keep our county open,” said Poe.

A “a lack of factual information” is impeding the local vaccination effort, said Erika Harmon, public information officer for the health department.

“People may be unaware that vaccines are safe, or that they’ve undergone rigorous testing prior to being made available to the public or that they are effective against COVID-19,” said Harmon.

An attitude of “it won’t happen to me” is also hindering vaccination plans, said Harmon.

“People may believe that they are not at risk of getting or getting sick from COVID-19 or COVID-19 is not as widespread as being reported. People may not have access to information made available by scientists, epidemiologists, virologists, researchers or even local doctors,” said Harmon.

Harmon said the delivery of “factual information to people” is critical.

“To improve their understanding, and consequently we believe, vaccine rates,” said Harmon.

To boost vaccine rates, the health department plans to connect residents with information and vaccine providers in the county, she said.

“It may take more time in this community than in others, but we believe that with persistent efforts to educate had accommodate, we’ll get there,” said Harmon.

She said that across the county there is enough vaccine available and providers to administer the shots.

“We anticipate more people to opt into the vaccine over time, as the wait-and-see group sees that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. People can schedule their COVID-19 vaccine the way they schedule their annual flu shot, so in addition to safe and effective, it is also convenient,” said Harmon.

Now the health department aims vaccinate 100% of the eligible population in Malheur County.

“We know the vaccine is the best tool we have to end the pandemic,” she said.

The outlook is bleak if vaccinations continue to lag.

“If we don’t see the majority of our population vaccinated, it is probable that COVID-19 will be with us for some time,” said Harmon.

Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted a short pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Harmon said the health department will use the Johnson vaccine for “hard-to-reach populations, and multiple other providers in the community have access to the vaccine as well.”

“We don’t have Johnson & Johnson clinics on the calendar right now. The pause may have created hesitation in people who were interested in the one-dose vaccine, but with the availability of two other safe options, we are not concerned that it will prevent people from being vaccinated,” said Harmon.

Saint Alponsus Medical Center Ontario does not administer the Johnson vaccine, said spokesperson Claudia Weathermon, but will continue to use the Moderna serum.

Valley Family Health Care is still waiting to hear from the Oregon Health Authority before it begins to administer the Johnson vaccine again.

“OHA is reviewing this as well as we want to make sure we are safe and have the OK before we move forward,” said Irene Winters, chief nursing officer for Valley Family Health.

Winters called the pause in the distribution of the Johnson vaccine “really unfortunate.”

“In our area there are so many that are vaccine hesitant. Having the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, many people were ready to get that one and then this happened and that really increased the fear, I think,” said Winters.

She emphasized the vaccines are safe.

“All of the vaccines are highly effective against Covid,” said Winters.

Valley Family Heath will focus on education going forward, she said.

“So, when questions are posed to them, they can answer them with facts. That’s really all we can do,” said Winters.

One major effort to get vaccine out – a mobile Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile van stationed at the fairgrounds – administered 290 doses of vaccine during an eight-day period, said Harmon.

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