More people need to be vaccinated in Malheur County to stop the Covid virus, say health officials. (Liliana Frankel/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – People in Malheur County are still getting sick from Covid.

More than a year after it first appeared, the infection remains firmly entrenched in the county where a sluggish vaccination rate continues to trouble local health officials. Malheur County has “the highest rate of cases and is the least protected,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

Poe said last week that Covid cases still hover at a consistent rate locally, though nowhere near the level from six months ago.

The test positivity rate for the county – an important benchmark regarding how far the virus has circulated in the county – rose to as high as 8% recently before it dropped down to 6%, said Poe.

More than 3,500 people – roughly one out of 10 county residents – have tested positive for the Covid virus since the infection hit the county in the spring of 2020, and 63 people have died.

The only way the county will stop the virus, said Poe, is through vaccinations.

For the week of May 30 through June 12, the health department reported 35 Covid cases.

“It has hit our community so hard that the only way out of it is really through a vaccine. I don’t know what a solution is otherwise,” said Poe.

Malheur County has the worst vaccination rate in the state at 35%. In comparison, Baker County lists a vaccination rate of 43%.

To reach the 65% state vaccination benchmark, more than 7,000 additional county residents would need to be vaccinated.

“The longer the virus keeps circulating, the more it will mutate. We now have this Delta variant we are looking for which hit India. It is far more infectious and does seem to impact younger people,” said Poe.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently declared the Delta variant poses a significant risk to those who are not vaccinated.

The CDC said the variant may be responsible for about 10% of all new Covid infections in the U.S. The CDC also announced vaccines are very effective against the variant.

“We just want to prevent the spread of the virus. We are going to have to get more people vaccinated to take us there,” said Poe.

Poe said the health department offers vaccinations, as do most health providers in the area. Poe acknowledged no one can request a resident get a vaccine. That is why, she said, ensuring correct information is available to people is essential.

“We want people to be empowered,” said Poe.

Poe said her department will continue to distribute information to the public about the safety of vaccines and encourage residents to get inoculated.

Poe said she recognizes there is a sense among many the Covid crisis is over.

It is not, she said.

“I think a lot of people have stopped wearing masks and going back to gatherings, and I understand the fatigue around the restrictions. But we are not out of the woods,” said Poe.

The impact of Covid, said Poe, was uneven locally.

“Some people in our community experienced great hardship because of these restrictions, and some did not feel really impacted by them. So, they may feel like this is irrelevant to them. I would say it is relevant if it is about your health. The risk is still real,” said Poe.

Poe said she believes most Covid restrictions will be lifted soon.

“Because the state overall is in such a good place in vaccinations, we will be over 70% for adults across the state vaccinated. Which is about double the rate for Malheur County. My worry is because Malheur County isn’t as protected as many other places round us, we will likely see more spread,” said Poe.

Last week the Malheur County Court approved a plan to augment the state’s Take Your Shot campaign.

The state effort is aimed at Oregonians 18 and older who have been vaccinated. Under the program, all Oregonians who have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine are automatically entered into the contest and could win up to $1 million or one of 36, $10,000 prizes. The county also will use Covid incentive funds from the state to create 10, $2,500 local winners.

The campaign is overseen by the Oregon Lottery and the Oregon Health Authority.

The state will choose its winners June 28.

The county, meanwhile, has not set a firm date for its drawing but will most likely happen between June 29 and July 1.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

County continues to lag behind most of the state in vaccinations

Malheur County now leads the state in Covid infection rate

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