Area resident Heidi Purnell receives a Covid booster shot Saturday, Dec. 11, at a clinic at the Ontario Municipal Airport sponsored by the Malheur County Health Department. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

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ONTARIO – The Covid pandemic in Malheur County is now a good news, bad news chronicle.

On one hand, cases of the infection are at their lowest point in since early September and the positivity rate – the percentage of those tested who are found to be infected – stands at 3.4%.

Just 15 cases were reported for the week ending Nov. 28. The last time the county reported cases below 20 was in mid-July, when 17 infections were recorded. The 15 cases of Covid is also a far cry from the 288 infections reported in the county Sept. 12.

The positivity rate is important because it is used to gauge how far the virus has infiltrated the community, and the county hasn’t seen a rate as low as 3.4% in months.

Vaccinations are also up, according to Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director. About 40% of all Malheur County residents have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine.

Participation in vaccine clinics has been growing recently as well, according to the health department.

The rate of children being vaccinated in Malheur County compared to the state has fluctuated.

In Oregon, 25% of children aged 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of vaccine while 12% received two doses.

For those aged 12 to 17 in Oregon, 65% have received a first dose of vaccine while 59.5% received two doses.

For youth aged 5 to 11 in Malheur County, 7.2% have received one dose, while 2.4% have received two doses.

For ages 12 to 17 in Malheur County, 37.6% have been inoculated with one dose while 32.6 percent received two doses. 

The bad news, though, is more people are dead from the virus and the vaccination goal for the county of 80% remains far off, said Poe.

Until more people are vaccinated, more Covid surges can be expected, said Poe.

“We are the most vulnerable county in Oregon because our vaccine rate is so low,” said Poe.

The health department continues to offer incentives – a $25 gift card to be used at local grocery stores – but it is difficult to determine if that helped boost vaccine numbers recently.

“I think incentives do work for some people,” said Angie Sillonis, a spokesperson for the health department.

The threat of the Omicron variant of the disease doesn’t seem to be propelling more people to get vaccinated either, said Sillonis.

Sillonis said residents put off obtaining the vaccine for a host of reasons not connected to the new, fast-moving variant.

“There are some people who waited until there as an FDA authorization. Some wanted to see family and friends get the vaccine and see how it worked for them. Everyone has their own reasons,” said Sillonis.

Poe said she remains hopeful the county vaccine rate will improve.

“But I don’t know if we can ever say we’ve had a successful response when nearly 100 people have died in such a short amount of time,” said Poe.

The local Covid death rate is a major concern, said Poe. The total number of dead from the Covid since the pandemic began almost two years ago was 93 last week. The Covid death rate for the county, said Poe, is 1.5%.

The death rate for state is 1.3%, according to the health department.

Between August and October, the health department reported 2,171 Covid cases and more than 35 deaths.

The majority of Covid deaths during that timeframe, she said, were among people who were unvaccinated.

“We’ve had an incredible number (of deaths) over the last three months, which aligns to the rate of infection. It is so sad we’ve lost so many people,” said Poe.

Poe said more than third of the county’s total cases were diagnosed between August and the end of October.

If the county encounters another surge – such as the one that began in August and ran through October – more people are going to die, said Poe.

“We know that when we have six weeks of about 200 or more cases that a couple of people each week will die. That’s just the trajectory of this disease and looking at the data we have so far,” said Poe.

The approaching Christmas holiday could also create new Covid surge challenges, said Poe.

“We certainly want people to be able to gather for the holidays and the way to do that safely is to make sure you are vaccinated and you take other precautions, especially with high-risk family and friends,” said Poe.

Poe said most of the 93 Covid deaths were avoidable.

“I think that is what is so difficult. The solution moving forward is we focus on getting more immunity in our community through vaccine, not immunity through infection. If we get immunity through infection, more people will die,” said Poe.

Malheur County has recorded nearly 6,000 Covid cases since the pandemic began, said Poe.

Poe said the number of deaths will continue to climb.

“At the rate we are going we will have 100 deaths by the end of the year,” said Poe.

The nature of serious Covid infections also plays a role in how deaths are reported, said Poe.

For example, there is typically lag time between when a person dies of Covid and when it is reported to authorities. That’s because, Poe said, of the reporting system used by the medical system in Idaho and Oregon.

“Sometimes people die at home. Sometimes they die in a different place. We have had several people who have died in Idaho hospitals and there is a bit of a lag identifying where that person lived,” said Poe.

The system to record deaths simply wasn’t robust enough to deal with a crisis on the scale of Covid, said Poe.

“They’ve usually not handled this capacity of reporting,” said Poe.

Covid, said Poe, is not the type of disease “where you get infected and die quickly.”

“Often times people just don’t get better. Or it can take time before they show up in the emergency room. Typically, that is one to two weeks,” said Poe.

More bad news may also be around the corner, said Sillonis.

“Cases are going up in Oregon and we are usually just a couple of weeks behind the state. And we don’t know much about Omicron and we don’t know how this is going to end,” said Sillonis.

Poe said low vaccination rates helps the virus mutate.

“Those mutations make it so it is likely people are more contagious and that the vaccines could be less effective. However, the vaccines are still very effective in preventing severe disease,” said Poe.

Poe said hope is not the antidote to Covid.

“We can’t move out of pandemic status into endemic status – where we can treat Covid the way we treat the flu – until we have far less cases and less of a death rate,” said Poe.

The answer, she said, remains the same as always: Vaccinations.

“People are not dying of the vaccines. People are dying with Covid. We lost our window of eliminating Covid so our goal is to just save lives. Our goal isn’t to eradicate the disease but protect the people,” said Poe.

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

Previous coverage:

Malheur County Health Department warns of more Covid hospitalizations, deaths as rates hold

Malheur County gears up for Covid blitz

Heartbreaking loss of Vale father from Covid resonates for local family

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