Environmental health specialist Jessica Alexander (left) of the Malheur County Health Department and Euvalcree volunteer Gisselle Gonzalez work at the drive-in test and vaccine clinic at the Malheur County Fairgrounds last week. The clinics continue on Tuesdays this month. (The Enterprise/ AUSTIN JOHNSON)

Malheur County remains last among Oregon counties in vaccination rates, a circumstance the county’s top health officials say is “costing lives and draining our health care system.”

State officials reported Friday that a 57-year-old man from Malheur County who tested positive for Covid died in a Boise hospital on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

“The sheer number of infections and the rate of spread is alarming,” the Malheur County Health Department wrote in a letter last week. “Hospitals are filling with people who are very sick with Covid-19, not from the symptoms of vaccination.”

Sarah Poe, health department director, and Dr. Sarah Laiosa, county health officer, outlined current conditions in Malheur County in a three-page letter to school superintendents and administrators.

They used the letter to join the call in recent days by hospital administrators and medical providers for residents to get vaccinated against the virus.

“We are tired. We are not even close to the worst, and that scares us,” said Dr. Richard Augustus, chief medical officer of West Valley Medical Center. He spoke at a virtual press briefing on Thursday, Sept. 2. “It feels, sometimes, like we’re rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”

But the pleas to act were matched by protests from local government officials against Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate that those in health care, schools and emergency services be vaccinated. The Malheur County Court and Vale Mayor Tom Vialpando were the latest urging Brown to drop the mandate, saying it threatened to drain local agencies because employees will quit rather than comply. 

Vialpando said that Vale Fire and Ambulance, which covers over 2,500 square miles, is at risk of shutting down.

“The taxpayers are paying for these critical services and rightfully should receive what they are paying for,” he wrote.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe continued to gather signatures for his own letter to Brown that opposes the mandates and declares he won’t enforce the mask mandate.

And state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said Friday he hasn’t received a response from the governor to the letter he and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, sent on Aug. 25 decrying the vaccinate mandate and asking it be reversed.

Despite the vaccination and mask mandates, life appeared to go on nearly normal for most people in Malheur County. High school football games went on as scheduled last week, school classes continued in full operation despite some quarantines, and obedience to the mask mandate remained spotty in public settings.

Still, the continuing spread of a virus that has sickened more than 4,000 residents the past 18 months led the county health department to warn school leaders.

The notice came as the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association gave up on a regional event scheduled in Ontario in October. The association said it was canceling and no longer postponing, as it has several times, before the regional Stockmanship and Stewardship event.

“This decision was made due to the current Covid-19 circumstances in the state of Oregon,” the association said in its announcement on Aug. 31.

The Oregon Health Authority said in its latest forecast that a more widespread use of masks could cut the number of people reported infected statewide each day by 300, down to 2,600 for the first half of September.

In one sign of possible leveling of the spread, Oregon Health and Science University last week forecast that the number of hospitalized for Covid might peak in early September and then drop steadily. There were 1,172 people hospitalized as of Friday, Sept. 3.

“It’s getting harder for the virus to find people susceptible right now, but unfortunately that’s because it’s infected so many already,” said Dr. Peter Graven of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics.

In Malheur County, data on hospitalizations isn’t readily available because hospital systems move the most seriously ill Covid patients to Idaho facilities. That is where the most recently-reported death occurred.

But the county set a one-day record for new cases of Covid on Tuesday, Aug. 31, with 85. The previous daily record of 68 was set over a year ago on July 7, 2020, according to the Malheur County Health Department.

A growing number of children infected with the virus prompted the health department’s lengthy letter to school officials, saying they were doing “excellent work” but encouraging vigilance to keep schools open.

“None of us were expecting this many cases this fast in our schools,” Poe said in an interview Friday.

In Idaho, the Payette High School closed until Monday, Sept. 13, because of Covid.

“Schools are being hit hard by the impact of illness, isolation and quarantine,” the health department letter said. “Vaccination among all eligible students, as well as teachers, staff and household members, is the most critical strategy to help schools safely resume full operations.”

Poe said the county crossed a threshold last week with 10,000 residents over 18 vaccinated – but noted that more than 9,000 more are needed to reach 80%. The county’s rate as of last week was 37.5% fully vaccinated, well below the state average. But daily reports indicate that in recent days several hundred Malheur County residents have been vaccinated.

The letter to school administrators noted the vulnerability of many students and their families. It took care to note that the infection doesn’t appear to be spreading within schools, but that students and employees are arriving with Covid.

Most of the county’s infections recently were among people “who live with someone who attends school or child care, or the cases themselves are children,” the letter said.

Schools “are not high-risk settings” when the state guidelines are followed, the letter said, noting that studies have shown measures such as masks, social distancing and hand washing result in lower transmission rates in schools than in the community.

Besides urging vaccinations, the health department said “far more testing” for the virus is needed, “especially in school-aged children, their families and school staff.” School leaders were urged to recommend testing for anyone with symptoms or who may have been exposed to an infected individual.

“We have recent situations where cases who went to school report they had symptoms for several days prior to a positive test,” the county letter said.

The Vale School District reported Friday that 31 students or employees have tested positive for Covid as of Sept. 3, and an additional 43 were in isolation or quarantine.

Other superintendents didn’t respond to requests from the Enterprise last week for updated numbers of school-affiliated individuals in quarantine. Ontario and Nyssa both reported such quarantines two weeks ago.

“All schools need to plan for remote learning. We expect all schools will have at least some students doing remote learning for part of the 2021-22 school year,” the letter said. 

The county health officials also recommended schools hold family events online and consider delaying until October extracurricular events.

DOCTORS GIVE UPDATE

Top medical officials with regional hospital systems again went public with pleas for vaccinations. They spoke to reporters on Thursday, Sept. 2, about climbing case rates, strained hospitals, exhausted workers and needless deaths.

Representatives of Saint Alphonsus Health System, St. Luke’s Health and West Valley Medical Center said 95% of their Covid patients are unvaccinated. Nearly every Covid patient needing intensive care is unvaccinated, they said.

“We continue to lose people who didn’t have to die,” said Augustus of West Valley Medical Center. “We continue to comfort families after a death that didn’t have to happen. There is heartache and there is pain.”

Dr. Frank Johnson, St. Luke’s chief medical officer, described “crazy, ridiculous circumstances” that are requiring heroic efforts by hospital staff. He grew emotional in describing that work.

“We’re exhausted,” Johnson said. “We need some help from our communities to turn this around.”

Reporters Abbey McDonald, Pat Caldwell, Liliana Frankel and Austin Johnson contributed reporting for this story.

News tip? Contact Abbey McDonald at [email protected]

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