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‘It’s very much real, it’s not political’: Malheur County is moving back to Phase 1 next week as cases rise – KTVB.com

The county’s head department director doesn’t think Phase 1 will make much of a difference since people aren’t following guidelines on public gatherings.

MALHEUR COUNTY, Ore. — Malheur County’s step back in Oregon’s reopening plan will take effect on Monday, August 17 after Governor Kate Brown made the decision on Thursday night in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has made the eastern Oregon county one of the state’s biggest hotspots.

“Over the past month, COVID-19 cases in Malheur County have risen so much that restrictions must be put back in place or we risk further illnesses and death in the region,” Brown said in a press release. “I know this change is difficult, but immediate action is necessary in order to reduce the spread of the disease and protect all those who call Malheur County home.”

Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said the department saw this coming since the county was placed on the state’s watch list several weeks ago.

“We knew that this potentially was coming, we’ve been trying to avoid it,” she said.

However, she doesn’t think the restrictions in Phase 1 will make a big difference for Malheur County.

“I don’t feel great about it because I don’t think Phase 1 is necessarily addressing all the reasons why we see the cases,” she said.

Poe told KTVB that the health department is seeing cases that are coming from outbreaks in essential businesses and from family gatherings. Business restrictions wouldn’t stop people from gathering at other houses.

“Then, people sometimes don’t quarantine and stay home and then we see spread from people who should’ve been quarantined or households with a lot of people,” Poe said.

In a press release, Gov. Brown also outlined the situation in the county regarding COVID-19:

• Malheur County has a case rate of 266 cases per 10,000 people—the third highest in the state.

• Over the past two weeks, the county has had a test positivity rate of 26%, which is far above the state average of approximately 5.8% for the last two weeks.

• The county has reported an average of 15 cases per day over the past two weeks.

• Over the past week, 55% of new cases were sporadic cases that could not be traced back to a known source.

• One larger long-term care facility outbreak (23 cases) and a few small workplace outbreaks have been reported.

 • The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has provided assistance with messaging and masking requirements and is also providing ongoing case investigation support for weekend coverage.

Poe said the health department knows what works to slow the spread, but people need to listen to the guidance to get the numbers down.

“We have to avoid crowds, we want people to wear face coverings, keeping distance and staying home with any symptoms, and quarantined. That’s not debatable,” she said.

Some of the numbers for Malheur County’s total number of cases do come from the Snake River Correctional Institution, the state prison located in the county.

As of August 9, Malheur County reported 800 cases of COVID-19, 176 of them were from adults in custody or staff at the prison. That amounts to 22% of the county’s cases, leaving 78% of the county’s case total coming from the community.

“Even when you take them out it still is an increase in community spread and really concerning across Malheur County,” Poe said. “We’re seeing far too many people are having really severe cases and 15 people have died associated with COVID-19, and so for a small community that’s a really big number and we’re also concerned about our hospital system.”

The hospital system in Ontario is St. Alphonsus and Dr. Brian Kitamura is the head of the emergency department there.

“Without a doubt, the last several weeks we’ve seen a big increase in cases,” he said. “Young, old everywhere in between. Not unusual to have five, six, seven patients a day that are coronavirus alone.”

Kitamura told KTVB that that’s around a quarter of the number of patients that come into the hospital every day.

“I’ve never seen anything like that on such a prolonged basis in my years of medicine where one diagnosis has taken up so many of our beds,” he added.

The hospital system is managing right now, but if a serious case comes in, the patient is usually transported to Boise due to the recovery time in the hospital.

“We’re managing fine, we’re doing well but it’s quite a burden on the resources,” Kitamura said.

Poe and Kitamura also said that one reason why cases continue to rise in Malheur County is that folks can drive across the state line into Idaho where there are few to no restrictions in place.

“We have these phases and mandates in Oregon that are here to help protect us and keep us safe and I will say they have been quite effective,” Poe said. “The numbers statewide in Oregon are far fewer than Idaho when Idaho only has 40% of the population of Oregon.”

Malheur County residents could be feeling a false sense of security since the same restrictions for them aren’t in place in Idaho, according to Kitamura.

“It’s very much real, it’s not political and sure lots of people get it and do well and the people that do poorly which is not an insignificant number, it’s a really long hard road,” he said.

In Oregon’s Phase 1, recreational sports, swimming pools, events and venues like movie theaters, bowling alleys, and arcades remain closed. Non-essential local travel is allowed. Personal services businesses are allowed to operate with health and safety measures in place. Restaurants and bars are open for dine-in service until 10 p.m. with health and safety measures in place. Indoor social gatherings remain capped at 10 people as long as physical distancing is maintained. Other gatherings are limited to 50 indoors and 50 outdoors, including faith-based, civic, and cultural gatherings.

Malheur County will be in Phase 1 for at least 21 days. After three weeks have passed, the state will re-evaluate what phase the county should be in. 

The county could be moved back to Phase 2, stay in Phase 1, or be moved back to a stay at home order if the situation doesn’t improve or worsens.

Poe and Kitamura encourage people to wash their hands frequently, social distance when going out in public, and wearing a mask when leaving the house.

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