SALEM — Rapidly rising COVID-19 infections, an ominous public health report, and a political stalemate led to Gov. Kate Brown’s unprecedented late-night order rolling back the reopening of Umatilla County.
“It was clear (Thursday, July 30) that if we did not act immediately, this could spread like wildfire,” Brown said Friday, July 31, in an interview with EO Media Group. “More people would die unless we took really quick action.”
It was the first time the state had reversed a county’s progress under the Reopening Oregon phased plan announced in mid-April. Umatilla County was moved two phases back to Baseline, the highly restrictive rules in place at the end of the spring peak of the pandemic’s spread in Oregon.
The Oregon Health Authority reported July 31 that total COVID-19 cases in Oregon now stands at 18,492. There have been 322 deaths. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported July 31 that nationwide there have been just over 4.5 million COVID-19 cases and 152,940 deaths. Worldwide, the center reported 17.4 million cases and 675,584 deaths.
For Umatilla County, the move resets the clock to restrictions in place last spring. Residents are encouraged to stay home, minimize travel, work from home if possible, limit public gatherings to 25 people and social gatherings to 10 people. Restaurants must return to takeout only. Most recreational facilities and entertainment venues must close.
If infection rates drop significantly, the county could move to Phase 1 after 21 days.
Brown’s July 30 order also moved Morrow County from Phase 2 to Phase 1. Morrow County officials said they were working with the state on possible voluntary measures to head off a return to Baseline.
Morrow County ranks 70th and Umatilla County ranks 75th in per capita new coronavirus infection rates among the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, according to an analysis of state health records by The New York Times.
Brown said the state’s own metrics showed Umatilla has the state’s highest COVID-19 infection rate — 234 positive cases per 10,000 residents. Morrow County reported 213 cases per 10,000 people.
The weekly percentage of tests that come back positive in Umatilla County is 23%, well above the statewide average of 5.1 percent. Morrow County’s positive test rate is even higher — 30%.
For the past few weeks, Brown said she and health officials made attempts to get Umatilla County to take voluntary actions. Union and Lincoln counties had voluntarily rolled back from Phase 2 to Phase 1 when they faced rising infection rates. The two counties were removed July 30 from the state’s watchlist of counties where infections are rising beyond acceptable limits.
Brown had hoped to replicate the same pattern with Umatilla County, but said her overtures were repeatedly rebuffed. She said county commissioners would only follow statewide restrictions.
“Honestly, I have been in contact regularly with the local county commissioners. I would prefer to do things collaboratively, but in this case, it has become a crisis,” Brown said.
As late as the July 30 weekly Oregon Health Authority COVID-19 briefing, the only mention of Umatilla and Morrow counties was that they would remain on the watchlist.
Brown said her decision to act came after she received reports later on July 30 from Oregon State University. One showed 17% of Hermiston residents turned up positive for COVID-19 in a special testing program. About 80% of those who tested positive did not have symptoms, but could infect others. A second report showed “significantly higher” levels of COVID-19 in wastewater samples taken in Hermiston and Boardman compared to other areas of the state.
Brown said she knows the rollback will be a health care and economic burden on the counties, and that she would take action to reduce the impact.
Adding more testing is challenging because of a growing nationwide shortage of test kits. Longer waiting periods are widely reported as labs struggle with a backlog of tests.
Brown said she had asked for help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and asked Oregon’s congressional delegation to keep up pressure for more supplies.
“It’s not looking like it will be coming,” she said.
Brown said she wanted to help those impacted by the rollbacks in the two counties by targeting some of $35 million in funds from a special fund the Legislature created. The program would send $500 Emergency Relief Checks to Oregonians who are still waiting on unemployment benefits.
Currently, the funds are allocated on a “first-come, first-served” basis, but Brown said she wants to set aside an unspecified amount from the fund for rural and Eastern Oregon.
While she understands that residents are eager to get back to normal, the quickest way there is to concentrate on getting the virus under control, Brown said.
“This is a public health crisis,” Brown said. “Lives are at risk.”