Federal, state and local officials are urging people to get vaccinated as new cases of Covid rise across the nation. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel).

ONTARIO – Federal, state and local health officials are now recommending universal mask use in public indoor areas as cases of the highly infections Delta variant of Covid continue to rise regionally and across the nation.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday recommended that all Americans – whether vaccinated or not – don a mask indoors in public if in an area where new Covid cases are surging.

The CDC recommendation is not a mandate, but guidance.  However, Oregon and Malheur County quickly followed suit with similar advice Tuesday.

The Oregon Health Agency said it moved to follow the CDC because of a “large jump in cases and hospitalizations and new national guidance calling for masking measures to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.”

“Today’s reported sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations in Oregon are sobering reminders that the pandemic is not over, especially for Oregonians who remain unvaccinated,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and state health officer.

Locally, Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said her agency also now recommends the use of mask indoors in public.

Recently local Covid cases and the infection positivity rate – a key gauge of the progress of the virus locally – showed a steady uptick.

For the week of July 4 through July 17, the health department recorded 15 Covid cases and a test positivity rate of 7.6%

But for the July 11 through July 24 the health department documented 28 new Covid cases and a test positivity rate of 7.9 percent.

The county has consistently remained especially vulnerable to the Covid virus because of its low vaccination rate and a host of social-economic factors.

“We have a lot of families that struggle with chronic crisis in Malheur County and the last thing they need is to be really sick with Covid or risk long Covid. We have a number of people still dealing with the effects of their illness,” said Poe.

As of Monday, 3,657 people in Malheur County have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since last March and 67 died.

Malheur County holds a vaccination rate of 37.8%, the second lowest in the state.

Poe said the health department verified 10 new Covid cases Monday, July 26, and five cases of the infection Tuesday, July 27.

“The test positivity rate went up again. That really means that there are very likely far more cases out there,” said Poe.

Poe said the county faces a “surge” in Covid cases.

Last week, top Idaho health officials warned that Covid cases propelled by the Delta variant of the virus continue to rise and urged residents to get vaccinated.

Almost all of the new Covid cases in Idaho are people who aren’t vaccinated, said Dr. Jim Souza, chief physician executive of St. Luke’s Health System.

“We are not seeing Covid largely in the vaccinated population,” Souza said.

Area health systems have also instituted other measures in the wake of the spike in cases.

Saint Alphonsus Health System, for example, now requires all employees to be vaccinated.

“Colleagues, providers, volunteers, vendors and contractors, the whole kit and caboodle,” said Mark Snider, Saint Alphonsus Health System spokesman.

Snider said Saint Alphonsus Health System employees have until Sept. 21 to get vaccinated. Snider said the health system employs about 6,000 people in Oregon and Idaho.

However, the new mandate does not cover Saint Alphonsus Health System employees at Baker City and Ontario.

Oregon law prohibits the health system from requiring its employees to be vaccinated.

Snider said a Idaho employee of the health system refusing to be vaccinated “will result in a termination.”

“It comes down to safety and safety is a core value at Trinity Health System and Saint Alphonsus Health System,” said Snider.

With the start of school just over the horizon the new recommendations are especially relevant locally and across the state.

The CDC in its Tuesday advisory placed special emphasis on masking in educational settings. Even as it stopped short of recommending universal indoor masking for all people, federal officials recommended such masking “for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

The Oregon Health Authority agreed, also recommending indoor masking in schools. 

News tip? Contact reporters Pat Caldwell or Lilly Frankel at 541-473-3377.

Previous coverage:

Malheur County: Coronavirus is all around us

Malheur County Health Department grapples with switch in how state measures Covid test results

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