People line up for vaccination during an event at Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario on Dec. 3, 2021. (Enterprise file)

The coronavirus had seemed to simmer down in Malheur County in recent weeks, so much so that future meetings of the county’s Covid task force recently were canceled.

And then came omicron.

State officials announced last Friday that the new variant of Covid appears to spread quickly and that once it hits Oregon, hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed by a surge in cases. Research into how severely ill people become if infected with the omicron variant remains unclear, but state health officials are taking no chances.

They set an ambitious goal to have 1 million Oregonians get a booster shot by the end of January. The extra shot on top of the regular vaccine dosage is expected to safeguard people from getting seriously ill, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

In Malheur County, authorities reacted with caution. They plan little change in current procedures that have seen the number of Covid cases plummet to less than 20 a week.

“Everything that we have seen thus far would suggest that omicron may not warrant the level of action that the state may be suggesting,” said Lt. Rich Harriman, Malheur County emergency services manager. “Everything that I have seen suggests that omicron doesn’t rise to the level that delta did.”

A forecast produced by Oregon Health & Science University last week projected that some 2,000 Oregonians could need hospitalization by early February because of the spread of omicron. The number in some circumstances could exceed 3,000, the forecast said. At the peak of the delta surge, 1,200 Oregonians needed hospital care.

Health officials said such a large surge would produce more patients than hospitals can handle.

A spokesman for Saint Alphonsus Health System said the network of Idaho and Oregon hospitals is doing nothing different than it has throughout the pandemic – monitoring and reacting as circumstances require.

The Ontario and Baker City hospitals had been relying on Oregon National Guard deployments to provide extra staffing, but those units recently left.

“They were a huge help to our hospitals in Baker City and Ontario. We appreciated their support,” said Mark Snider, Saint Alphonsus spokesman.

The Ontario hospital also has benefited from extra medical staff orchestrated by state officials. Harriman said the hospital has asked to continue that staffing “well into 2022. We will make that request of the state and we have no concerns that it won’t be met.”

Still, the omicron development produced another opportunity for officials to urge Malheur County residents to get vaccinated.

That remains a big job, according to state data.

“Malheur County remains an under-vaccinated area and it would certainly be beneficial for people to take advantage of the free, safe and effective vaccines that are available to prevent or minimize the impacts of this latest variance,” Snider said.

Some 41% of those 5 and older eligible have been vaccinated. That’s roughly half the rate for the state as a whole, and only Lake County has a smaller percentage vaccinated.

“There are exceptions to every rule, but overwhelmingly the people that are up to date on their vaccines are not being hospitalized and not dying from Covid-19,” Harriman said. “It is far more likely to die from Covid-19 than it is to die from getting the vaccine.”

In Malheur County, 94 people have died with Covid-19 since the pandemic took hold in March 2020.

According to state and county data, 7,732 people 18 and older need to get vaccinated to reach the 80% “herd immunity” threshold.

The county and providers have been conducting vaccination clinics for weeks, including on weekends and in community settings. On average, 14 people a day in Malheur County are getting vaccinated.

Angie Sillonis, spokeswoman for the Malheur County Health Department, said 18 sites in the county are approved to vaccinate and that there is no issue with supplies of vaccine for the first shot or for booster shots.

She said booster shots have been available at all the public clinics conducted in recent weeks and will be going forward.

But state data shows Malheur County has a long way to go in administering the booster shots being pushed hard by state health authorities.

As of Dec. 17, 3,239 residents – about 13% of the county’s population – had their booster. Another 8,714 have yet to do so.

Sillonis said that while the number of people tested for Covid has dropped in recent weeks, “the number of tests being performed is sufficient” to detect any spread.

She said testing procedures will stay the same even with the emergence of the omicron variant, which can be identified in routine work by the state public health laboratory.

County health officials are urging residents to take other steps to avoid becoming infected.

“At the holidays, in particular, it’s important to protect your loved ones,” she wrote in an email to the Enterprise. “There is still much we don’t know about the omicron variant, so taking every precaution is the best way to protect the people around you.”

That includes masking around people you don’t live with, keeping 6 feet distance and open windows when gathering indoors as the weather allows.

“Try to keep groups small,” she added.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected]

RELATED COVERAGE:

Governor, health experts brace Oregonians for a serious impact from Omicron by February

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