The Malheur County Health Department reported an uptick of virus cases locally during the past few weeks. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).

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ONTARIO – Malheur County is now inside a new surge of Covid cases most likely powered by the omicron variant, according to Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

The Malheur County Health Department reported 40 new Covid cases Friday and statistics from the department show new Covid infections began to climb in mid-December. They have increased fourfold in less than a month and 156 cases were reported for the week ending Jan. 2.

“We are in a surge. A surge, though, is less about a particular threshold but about capacity. We do not have the capacity to do full contact tracing of everyone who has been exposed,” said Poe. The impact is likely to show up in absences from work and school. Hospitals in the northeast Oregon region that includes Malheur County have watched their supply of beds for those needing intensive care drop from 12 to as low as just one on Jan. 6. State forecasts indicate that Oregon hospitals will see those needing a bed at a hospital to peak at over 1,600 cases by the end of January. The omicron variant appears to be less severe but spreads much faster, said Poe.

“It’s being slowed down by booster doses but the concern is the sheer number of people who will be infected,” said Poe.

Poe said for every new omicron case, typically three other people will be infected.

“Which means you can expect your cases to triple every week,” said Poe.

The expected high number of new Covid infections will also compel the state – and the local health department – to shift the focus of the case investigation blueprint used since the pandemic began.

Both the state and the Malheur County Health Department are largely stopping case investigations, where those infected on contacted to explore who else they might have been in touch with.

Instead, public health officials are focusing on probing Covid outbreaks in high-risk settings such as schools, long-term health care facilities and large businesses.

The state also plans a statewide Covid case support hotline that will furnish health education, referrals and resources to individuals who are exposed to the infection. The hotline will be staffed with English and Spanish speakers.

The hotline is scheduled to be rolled out Wednesday, Jan. 12.

The hotline will help “in directing people who need wrap-around services such as food boxes and prescriptions, things that people need to stay home,” said Poe.

“The second piece is we won’t be investigating every single positive lab result that comes through,” said Poe.

The fast spread of the omicron variant of Covid also creates new challenges in terms of immunization rates, said Poe.

Friday, about 49% of Malheur County adults – those 18 years and older – had received at least one dose of vaccine while 45% obtained two doses.

Those acquiring a booster shot in the county stood at 15%, well below the state average.

Only 30% of those over the age of 65 in the county have been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot, according to state statistics.

The number of people over the age of 65 who still need a booster is troubling, said Poe.

“Because that is where we’ve seen the most severe illness, those at the highest risk for hospitalization,” said Poe.

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

Previous coverage

County reaches grim milestone as nearly 6,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began

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

Battle lines drawn in Malheur County as virus surges

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