Pharmacist Jennifer Tolman of Malheur Drug administers Covid vaccine shot to a local resident on Monday, Aug. 9. (The Enterprise/AUSTIN JOHNSON)

ONTARIO – Last October, Jennifer Tolman tested positive for Covid.

Tolman, the pharmacist at Malheur Drug in Vale, did not experience severe symptoms.

“It was like a cold and made me really tired,” said Tolman.

Her father, though, wasn’t so lucky.

“I gave it to my dad who got very sick with Covid pneumonia. It was the sickest he’s ever been,” said Tolman. Tolman said her father fought the virus for more than a month and consistently struggled to keep his oxygen at a normal level.

Tolman said the most terrifying aspect of her father’s bout with Covid was the day he told her he did not want to be put on a ventilator.

“When he told me that it kind of freaked me out. He is my big, tough dad. He was very short of breath. It was a traumatic experience,” said Tolman.

Her father eventually recovered, said Tolman.

“He says his lungs are not as strong as they once were,” said Tolman.

Now, as cases of Covid are beginning to spike across the county, the state and the nation, Tolman is urging people to get vaccinated. Malheur County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Oregon.

Tolman understands how the Covid virus can seemingly barely impact some people while in others the infection is very severe.

She said she also knows there is a resistance from many people to get the vaccine.

“I would encourage them to talk to a health care professional they trust and ask their opinion. I would also encourage them to ask people around them who have received the vaccine and what their experience was with it,” said Tolman.

Tolman said her pharmacy provides Covid vaccinations and she’s recently seen an uptick in people who want to get the serum.

“The past two weeks, it’s been pretty steady,” said Tolman.

Tolman said area residents who are hesitant to get the vaccine can call her. Cases of Covid continue to climb across the Treasure Valley and in Malheur County.

From July 18 to July 31, the Malheur County Health Department logged 53 new cases of Covid.

Monday, the health department reported 31 new Covid cases.

Since the pandemic started, Malheur County has reported 3,730 people infected with the coronavirus, including 68 who died. The test positivity rate also climbed from 7.9% to 9.2%.

 “A month ago, we averaged two cases a day. At this moment we are roughly eight to ten cases a day,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

An outbreak was reported last week at the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley in Ontario.

Gov. Kate Brown, meantime, has mandated masks in local schools and among state workers and visitors to state offices in Malheur County and elsewhere.

Poe said Friday that the higher test positivity rate is worrisome.

“The test positivity rate has doubled in the last month and that is really significant because it doesn’t mean we did a bunch more testing. It means with less and less testing of people who are sick we are finding more cases,” said Poe.

Poe said there are “likely” more cases of Covid in the county that have not been verified.

“That should be really concerning to anybody who is here. Especially if you are unvaccinated there is a higher risk that you will get Covid,” said Poe. Poe said Malheur County is especially susceptible to a new Covid outbreak.

“We already know we have a very vulnerable community with a large number of people who have underlying health conditions – chronic disease coupled with not being protected by a very effective vaccine means we will likely get hit harder than anyone else,” said Poe. Poe said the vaccine is the one tool that can stop the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable.

“We don’t have to have another surge. No one else has to get really sick or die. Families don’t have to burdened with quarantine,” said Poe.

The rise in cases is the result of mix of the perception that the crisis is over, new variants to the virus and fabrications about the safety of the vaccines.

“We are dealing with a lot of misinformation that has confused people,” said Poe.

Poe said vaccines are reliable against Covid and its variants.

“While there are still some breakthrough cases, the vaccine is still very effective to preventing severe disease,” said Poe.

Poe said the vaccine and Covid are not political issues.

“We have vaccines thanks to the Trump administration. So, I would encourage anyone who is confused with misinformation or interpreting this as a political situation to just step back and look at the ways we have to protect the health of our community and be done with Covid,” said Poe

Poe said she understands – and supports – the notion vaccinations are a personal choice. Yet, she said, there is a bigger issue.

“It isn’t right that a lot of people have been infected. Someone else got them sick. Wasn’t that their personal rights being impacted?” said Poe.

Poe said while she can’t predict the pace or severity of the newest Covid crisis she said she is concerned, especially since the county’s vaccination rate – at 38.4% – is so low.

Poe said there are about 22,000 people in the county unvaccinated, which could prove to be a target-rich environment for the virus.

“We know the Delta variant is potentially four times more infectious and 70 percent of our population is not vaccinated,” said Poe The best solution she said is the vaccine and the community uniting to stop the spread of Covid.

“We should be solving this problem grass-roots. As a local community we choose to protect each other. Get vaccinated. Get tested,” said Poe.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County's Covid case count shows sharp decline

Malheur County outlines new measures to battle Covid outbreak

Malheur County now leads the state in Covid infection rate

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