Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department (Enterprise/File)

VALE – Gov. Kate Brown told Oregonians Tuesday that she would ease up on pandemic restrictions county by county if 7 out of 10 people were vaccinated.

That’s a high bar for Malheur County, where currently 3 out of 10 are vaccinated.

Brown said the new standard could mean much of the state fully reopens to normal life by next month. She said restrictions associated with the state’s Covid risk levels would be lifted, with the possible exception of mask wearing.

She also congratulated Oregonians, saying that “it looks like we’ve crossed the tipping point of the fourth surge.”

Covid cases had been climbing across the state in recent weeks, including in Malheur County.

Until now, risk metrics have taken into account the test positivity rate and case count per 100,000 people. 

For the time being, Malheur County remains in the “high risk” category, meaning that there are capacity restrictions on restaurants, churches, and events. 

The state reported Monday that Malheur County’s two-week case count stood at 64, up from 37 the week prior. 

“School outbreaks make up the majority of the cases, but there continues to be sporadic infection throughout the community as well,” the Malheur County Health Department said in a press release.

The department said deaths have increased, with four Covid-related deaths in the past month - a woman her 50s, a woman in her 80s, a man in his 60s, and a man in his 80s.

With Brown’s new direction, designation as “low risk” – the option with the least restrictions – a minimum of 65% of a given county’s adult population must be vaccinated. 

Currently, only 31.5% of Malheur County’s population ages 16 and up is vaccinated, said Erika Harmon, public information officer for the Malheur County Health Department. 

“We haven’t calculated a growth rate but we are a long way off and will need to see an increase in the local vaccine rate to achieve that,” Harmon said.

The agency said even if it counted vaccinations obtained by residents in Idaho, the county isn’t close to the vaccination goal.

“Best case is that 39% of our eligible population has received at least one dose of vaccine,” said Sarah Poe, health department director. “That means we still have thousands of people who need to be vaccinated.”

Aside from vaccinating residents, to move to “lower risk,” counties now must also submit to the Oregon Health Authority a plan detailing how they are going to close the gaps which have emerged in vaccination rates between marginalized communities and the population at large. 

Harmon said it was too soon to share details of how the health department plans to comply with this requirement. She said that a lack of good data continued to significantly impede the Health Department’s equity analysis.

“Of the data collected from vaccine recipients, close to 40% have declined to answer the race/ethnicity question,” Harmon said.  

But figuring out how to better reach Malheur County’s large Latinx community is a need that comes with strong incentives from the governor’s office. 

“Counties will be eligible for state resources to help achieve these goals, and will be eligible for additional funding as they demonstrate making progress towards closing their equity gaps,” according to Tuesday’s announcement.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.  

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