A Moderna Covid vaccine vial with a soon to be filled vaccine passport card at Malheur Drug on Aug. 9. Health officials are increasingly worried about a recent spike in Covid cases locally. (The Enterprise/AUSTIN JOHNSON)

ONTARIO – Malheur County is on the cusp of a major health crisis because of the Covid virus as more people become ill with the infection.

The Malheur County Health Department faces a familiar reality with rising Covid positivity rates. The agency is once again focusing on contact tracing and Covid testing as it scrambles to get ahead of a growing crisis by determining who is infected and who needs to be quarantined. Covid vaccinations are seen by health officials as the best way to curb the highly contagious Delta variant of the disease.

“Our priority is to save lives and keep kids in school in person and reduce the impact of COVID-19 has on our community. I don’t see a way to do all those things without a lot more vaccinations and testing,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

The county’s test positivity rate was below 10% just weeks ago and as of Sunday stood at 24%, a worrisome indicator for health officials. The positivity rate is the percentage of those tested who are found to be infected and is used to gauge how far the virus has infiltrated the community.

“Anything over 5% really concerns me. Over 10% and we know there is a significant number of people who likely have Covid who are undiagnosed,” said Poe.

In many ways, the outlook for the Covid virus locally resembles the situation a year ago when the infection was burning through the county, there was no vaccine and a shortage of tests.

Circumstances are better now, Poe said, because is there is a vaccine and ample testing capacity in the county.

Another plus, said Poe, is the joint operating environment created over the past year that includes the county, local health care providers and private businesses to fight Covid.

“There are many incredible health care partners that were providing testing and vaccinations and we are working together. This is not just a public health response right now. We have all these partners and there is no shortage to where you can get the vaccine,” said Poe.

Poe said the health department and its partners are crafting a plan to again operate drive-thru Covid testing sites.

“We did 29 of those in 2020. But it does take quite a bit of planning and we will offer vaccines at those sites,” said Poe.

Widespread testing, said Poe, is the most effective way to get ahead of the virus.

“It is important to identify who is infected so they can stay home and reduce the amount of spread. It is the most basic, fundamental way. At the same time, we need people to be vaccinated,” said Poe.

She urged people who had doubts about the vaccine to find credible information.

“We really need to fight misinformation. So, people should talk to their health care provider and get good, reliable information and then make the choice that is right for them and their family,” said Poe.

Poe said she is adding two more contract tracers to her staff as the Covid crisis builds.

They reach out to those reported to have been around an infected individual to help identify how the virus is spreading and urge testing.

“We know hospital capacity is going up and the number of infections is going up. Just those two things together mean we need to act,” said Poe.

Poe said the county has already received help from the Oregon Health Authority with shipments of Covid tests and vaccine.

Across a six-county region – Baker, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa – the Covid outlook appears to be growing dire.

As of Friday, hospitals in the region reported that out a total of 25 intensive care beds, only two were available for seriously ill patents. Just a month ago, on July 19, there were no Covid patients in regional ICU hospital beds.

Currently, Malheur County reports a vaccination rate of 39%, the second-lowest in the state.

The Oregon Health Authority lists a goal for vaccinations in the county of 671 per day, but the county’s current pace of vaccination, averaged over seven days, is only 19 per day.

Poe said there is no shortage of vaccine stock countywide.

The Covid situation is acute across the nation and in Oregon.

The recent upsurge in cases prompted Gov. Kate Brown on Aug. 11 to mandate the use of mask indoors across the state.

Meanwhile, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asked church members to wear masks in public spaces and to get vaccinated.

“We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders,” the First Presidency announced.

Local church officials did not respond to calls for comment.

The First Presidency is the presiding governing body of the church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is has one of the biggest congregations in the Treasure Valley.

Outbreaks of Covid, which are defined as linked cases, have already emerged in several institutions across Malheur County. The Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley’s Ontario location was closed for two weeks, scheduled to reopen last Monday, after the Malheur County Health Department notified them of an outbreak Aug. 3.

That outbreak included at least 10 individuals infected who had been at the club, but their ages weren’t available.

At Snake River Correctional Institution, eight out of 153 men in the minimum security unit tested positive for Covid on Aug. 11.

The outbreak paused visiting at the unit as well as most work assignments.

The Snake River Correctional Institution kitchen also cooks meals for the Nyssa and Vale senior center but can no longer do so because of the Covid situation at the prison.

The last Covid case at SRCI had been reported June 18, with zero cases reported in July. Some 70% of SRCI’s adults in custody are vaccinated against Covid.

Across the Snake River in Idaho, Covid cases are also on the rise. The predominate strain of Covid in the counties – Adams, Gem, Canyon, Owyhee, Payette and Washington – covered by Southwest District Health is the Delta variant.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County: 'Coronvirus is all around us'

Top Malheur County health official says more vaccine needed to stymie Covid

Malheur County Covid infection rate continues to climb

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