Gov. Kate Brown in her Portland office (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

SALEM - Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide mask mandate last week to respond to rapidly rising Covid cases statewide, and gave a clear message to the counties: they did not do enough.

Malheur County representatives disagree.

The statewide mandate for wearing masks in indoor public places came after projections from the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Health and Science University said that without the measures, the state by September would need 500 hospital beds more than it has.

Masks help block the release and inhalation of droplets and particles into the environment and greatly reduce the spread of Covid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Malheur County has seen a steady rise in Covid cases since July, with 74 new cases reported last week and the positivity rate – the percentage of people found infected through testing – had climbed to nearly 20%, according to OHA data.

Brown didn’t call out Malheur County leaders specifically but rather criticized local leaders across the state for their inaction.

“What was really clear in the last week or so was that they were not taking the actions that were needed to preserve hospital capacity,” said Brown. “It is unfortunate that we did not see widespread action at the local level, so I am taking this action now.”

According to the governor’s office, she met with local and county representatives asking them to adopt mask mandates or take other action to reduce the spread of the Delta variant.

“The message we received from the counties most severely hit by COVID-19 is that they did not wish to see a return of statewide mandates. Most say they are relying on recommendations and education efforts at the local level, and that people deserve to have personal choice,” according to an email to the Enterprise from Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director.

Representatives in Malheur County — which currently has the second lowest vaccination rate among adults in the state at 39% — were among those advocating for local control.

“It was clear from that meeting that county leaders in areas with low vaccination rates would not, for the most part, be implementing new health and safety requirements, including mask requirements,” Boyle wrote.

Those rules would have been up to Malheur County commissioners, who did not implement any new requirements and told the Enterprise they don’t plan to now.

“We’ve done everything they’ve actually asked us to do in this county,” said County Judge Dan Joyce. “We've gone above and beyond to make sure everybody gets protected and then we get slapped in the face.”

On Thursday, Aug. 12, Joyce said that he was not aware of any new cases in Malheur County, and thought the closest one was in Pendleton. Malheur County had reported 31 new cases Covid that Monday, and had a recent outbreak at the Boys and Girls Club of Ontario.

“We encouraged people to get the vaccine. We recognize it’s an individual choice, and we’re not going to force anybody,” said Commissioner Ron Jacobs.

Jacobs said the county will be following the mandate locally and will be looking into other options for local action.

There have been reactions on the regional level, too. In a newsletter last week, state Senator Lynn Findley, R-Vale, called the mask mandates “a gross overreach of authority.”

“Our focus must include broader and more thorough education on how we can each take personal steps to help prevent the spread of the virus and its variants,” Findley wrote.

On the vaccine education front, the Malheur County Health Department has been working with BOOST Oregon, which hosts vaccine advocate workshops, and has been active on social media.

The health department has been promoting testing and vaccinations, and on Aug. 16 the county had a weekly average of 19 doses administered per day, according to the OHA.

County Commissioner Don Hodge said that he had advocated for local control, but said that he recognizes the governor’s mandate is an effort to protect people.

“We’re like everybody else. We want to see everything back to normal, and kids back to school,” Hodge said. “For me it’s simple, we need to get everybody to be vaccinated so we can get back to a normal world.”

The health department hasn’t recently asked the commissioners to take any additional health and safety measures before the governor’s mandate, according to Sarah Poe, department director. She doesn’t plan to ask in the future.

“I’m on the same page as our commissioners that we don’t need additional county restrictions,” Poe said. “I don’t think what we need is more restrictions. We need more testing and vaccinations.”

Poe said the Malheur County Health Department has been working with state health authority, who recently provided an additional 3,000 Covid tests to the county. The health authority has also helped with processing and calling people to let them know their results.

Poe said that the health authority has called the Malheur County response a “gold standard” for rural Oregon.

“I just think it’s wrong to politicize any of this. This is a health care crisis,” Poe said of the governor’s statements. “In public health we do a lot around harm reduction and trauma informed care, and I really don’t see how blaming vulnerable communities is helpful.”

News tip? Contact reporter Abbey McDonald at [email protected]

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