Three protesters stand with homemade signs expressing dissent of the recent statewide mask and Covid vaccine mandates outside of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario on Wednesday, Aug 25. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

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The Covid surge continues in Malheur County, which saw 146 new cases last week. The surge brought a wave of reactions from health care experts, and back-to-school week added pressure for officials to act.

Last week, health care professionals across Malheur County and in neighboring cities addressed a letter to the community they serve, asking them to get the Covid vaccine.

Currently, Malheur County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state for total population, at 33% according to data from the Oregon Health Authority. The statewide vaccination rate is 61%.

The letter was signed by 42 doctors, physician assistants, pediatricians, pharmacists and other experts from the region.

“It is difficult for anyone to wade through the vast amount of data on COVID-19 and to know which sources to believe,” it reads.

They wrote, “Getting vaccinated is the best way to reduce the chances of spread to others” and that “the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks of acquiring and spreading” Covid.

The medical professionals said they “welcome an open and honest discussion” about the vaccine.

The letter was sent to the Malheur County Health Department, which published it on their website last week.

“Our ethical obligation is to provide the best care based on scientific data from reliable sources,” the letter reads. “We do not take our responsibility lightly and have committed our careers to benefit the health and wellbeing of others.”

Christina Benson, a physician assistant at Saint Alphonsus’ Fruitland Health Plaza, was among the signatories.

“Honestly, I signed the letter because I care,” Benson said. “I care about all my patients and I care about the community. I think that it’s so important to inform the community, and there’s a lot of information out there.”

She said that as a health care professional, she practices evidence-based medicine and follows the most credible research in her recommendations. That research backs the vaccine.

“My concern for the health of the community is very high right now,” Benson said. “Our best line of defense right now is to get the vaccine.”

She said that she respects an individual’s choice to get vaccinated, but hopes that the letter encourages people who still have questions to speak with their physician.

Jennifer Tolman, PharmD also signed but is not listed in the document.

The letter was published the same week that Malheur County saw 146 new Covid cases, a 23% increase from the week before. The highly contagious Delta variant has led to an increase in cases every week since July.

Case investigators for the Malheur County Health Department have reported more young people getting hospitalized with Covid.

In response to rising cases statewide, Gov. Kate Brown added a statewide outdoor mask mandate that took effect Friday, Aug. 27.

The mandate applies to people in outdoor public settings and events where physical distancing is not possible.

There are several exceptions to the rule, including for children under 5. Activities such as eating, playing sports and performing a speech or music are also exempt from the requirement.

Local schools will continue to follow the previous guidance, which states that children are not required to wear masks outdoors during school.

The announcement also included a recommendation for the Oregon Health Authority for physical distancing and masking at private gatherings between different households.

Malheur County is now fully back to school as of last week, bringing challenges to districts across Malheur County.

Three local school districts have had significant numbers of students and staff in quarantine, despite no evidence of spread within the school systems.

As of Friday, Aug. 27, the Ontario School District had 29 students quarantining, with five positive cases detected.

As of Sunday, Aug. 29, in Nyssa, 35 students and staff were quarantining, with 11 positive cases detected.

And just four days into the new school year, 50 employees and students in the Vale School District had gone into quarantine because of the coronavirus, according to Superintendent Alisha McBride.

The school system with 875 students may have to stop in-person teaching.

“That means that over 50 people have either tested positive or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” McBride wrote in a letter to parents. “At this time, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is spreading in our schools; however, if we do not act now, it is possible that our children will be forced into distance learning shortly after the school year begins.”

Quarantine guidelines vary between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and according to guidance from the Malheur County Health Department. McBride cited health department guidance that people with Covid should isolate for 10 days after becoming symptomatic or testing positive, and unvaccinated people in close contact with someone with a positive case should isolate for 14 days.

"Since the first day of school, the district office has administered 21 tests with four positives for a positivity rate of 19%," McBride wrote in an email to the Enterprise. She noted that since some individuals choose to get tested outside of the district office, there could be more positive cases not reflected in those numbers.

State officials haven’t provided details on how many cases that would force schools to close their doors. That decision remains with local school leaders.

However, state guidance for the 2021-2022 school year gives the state public health director at the Oregon Health Authority “broad authority to close a facility that presents a public health risk.” Likewise, the director of the Oregon Department of Education also has “authority to close a school facility within existing state laws.”

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, reaffirmed McBride’s statement that there was no evidence to suggest Covid was being spread in Vale schools. Rather, she said that the high numbers of students and staff in quarantine reflected the incidence of Covid in the community, with the total number of cases in Malheur County since the beginning of the pandemic passing 4,000 this week.

“It’s very unlikely that someone would’ve been in school this Monday and we already are seeing an outbreak from spread in schools,” Poe said. “They’re maintaining distance between students at least in the school building. They have to follow such restrictions that they do limit close contact and everyone has to wear a face covering.”

Physical distancing at Vale schools “is not required, but is encouraged” under a policy set by the Vale School Board.

McBride closed her letter to the community by reminding families that mask-wearing is expected at Vale schools as a result of Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate, and asked families not to send children to school if they had symptoms of Covid.

McBride said that since the beginning of the school year Aug. 20, her staff has been "teaching the expectation" of mask-wearing to students.

"I am proud of the grace, patience and resilience that so many of our staff and students are embodying as we return to school," she said. "There remain a few high school students who are still reluctant to wear face coverings in school. Unfortunately, this places not only those students, but the students around them at greater risk of becoming ill or being required to quarantine."

McBride said that the district may be "forced to offer (those) students a remote learning option" if they do not begin to comply with the masking mandate.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, said that as cases rise, forcing quarantines across school systems, a new consensus has emerged among superintendents.

“Not only should parents keep their kids home if they are experiencing symptoms of Covid,” he said. “They should seriously consider keeping their kids home if anyone in the household is experiencing symptoms of Covid.”

Last week, Malheur County had an average of 48 vaccine doses administered per day.

The health department is hosting free drive-through Covid testing and vaccinations at the Malheur County Fairgrounds. The sessions are between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., on Tuesday, Sept. 7, and on Sept. 14 and Sept. 21.

Valley Family Health Care’s mobile clinic will be in Ontario this Friday, Sept. 3 in the Ashley Furniture Parking Lot. The vaccine is available for everyone over the age of 12, with no appointment necessary.

The health department website lists additional places to get vaccinated, including at Bi-Mart in Ontario and Malheur Drug in Vale.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald at [email protected]

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