UMATILLA COUNTY — Oregon is being put on a “two-week freeze” in an attempt to curb the rapid spread of COVID-19, Gov. Kate Brown announced at a press conference on Friday, Nov. 13.

The freeze will be in effect statewide from Wednesday, Nov. 18, to Dec. 2.

“COVID-19 is raging across Oregon,” said State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger. “The virus is spreading fast, and threatens to overwhelm our hospitals across the state with severely ill patients if we all don’t act now.”

During this two-week period, restaurants and bars are limited to takeout only, while gyms, fitness organizations, indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, and event venues will be closed entirely. Capacity at grocery and retail stores will be capped at 75%, and social gatherings are limited to no more than six people from no more than two households.

Faith-based organizations will also be limited to gatherings of 25 people indoors, or 50 people outdoors. All other restrictions and guidelines remain in place, and businesses are required to mandate employees work from home “to the greatest extent possible.”

Brown said individual counties may be held in this freeze beyond Dec. 2 depending on local case numbers. Multnomah County, for example, will be under the restrictions until at least Dec. 16.

“I want to be honest about that now — be prepared,” she said.

Unlike previous shutdowns, Brown said personal service providers, such as physical therapists, chiropractors and medical spas, will remain open during the freeze.

Earlier on Nov. 13, Brown also announced a joint travel advisory between Oregon, Washington and California that urges residents to refrain from nonessential out-of-state travel, asks those arriving after traveling to self-quarantine for 14 days and encourages people to stay local.

“The advisories define essential travel as travel for work and study, critical infrastructure support, economic services and supply chains, health, immediate medical care, and safety and security,” a press release stated.

California surpassed 1 million cases of the virus earlier this week, while Washington reported that its new cases have doubled in the past two weeks.

The Oregon Health Authority has reported a record number of new weekly cases for three consecutive weeks, including single-day records of over a thousand cases on Nov. 12 and Nov. 13, and an all-time high of active hospitalizations of 303.

In Umatilla County, the Oregon Health Authority has reported 202 new cases of the virus since Saturday, Nov. 7, which is the most new weekly cases reported since the virus spiked locally in July.

Parties identified as source of local surge

Prior to the announcement, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said Nov. 12 that the local rise in cases has been directly linked to at least “five or six” large social gatherings of 30 or more, and at times 50 or more people, that were hosted around or after Halloween.

Fiumara said a significant portion of these cases have been diagnosed in young adults and teens — county data showed nearly 55% of the county’s total cases have been among people 39 or younger as of Nov. 13 — and the health department is pleading with parents and the community to prevent these gatherings from happening.

“Parents: please help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring that your teen is not out partying,” an email sent by the health department to parents with students in the Pendleton School District stated this week. “We are aware of one or more large parties planned in our area for the upcoming weekend. Please ensure that your teen is not in attendance.”

Fiumara said those attending the parties have also been unwilling to share information with the health department during contact tracing and it’s hindering the local response.

In one instance, Fiumara said an entire household was diagnosed with the virus and had recently attended a birthday party of at least 25 people but wouldn’t share information about other attendees who may have been exposed.

“We have many instances of items like that happening, which make it confusing for us to know how many of these are the same party or how many are different,” he said.

Sidelinger said Nov. 13 that the vast majority of cases statewide have also been linked to social gatherings, and that the state has directed counties to prioritize contact tracing for the most at-risk individuals when necessary due to the difficulty in tracking cases associated with them.

Younger individuals are generally more healthy and less likely to be hospitalized or suffer severe symptoms of COVID-19, but Fiumara said there’s still risk of spreading to other more at-risk individuals and the numbers will continue to keep schools and businesses under restrictions.

“The real concern is who they’re going to bring it home to,” Fiumara said. “If they have a place of employment, who are they going to bring it to at work, who are they going to interact with in the community, and all of that really just pushes the spread up.”

We’re starting to get ‘flashbacks’

While many Oregon counties sustained relatively stable case numbers earlier in the pandemic, Umatilla County became home of some of the highest case numbers and worst case rates per capita during a rapid spike in July.

The county reported over 1,300 total cases of the virus at a daily average of 45 cases per day in the month of July, and the health department struggled to keep up with the mounting case investigations to trace while attempting to expand staff and streamline processes.

While the recent increase in cases has been more gradual and the health department is better equipped to handle them this time, Fiumara said the current surge of case numbers has given the department some “flashbacks” to the one experienced this summer.

“We’re definitely starting to push up against what we can handle on a daily basis,” Fiumara said.

With the county’s expanded health staff and a more efficient process for following up on cases that was refined during previous surges, Fiumara said the health department has been assisting sporadically with recent cases from Union and Malheur counties as requested.

But as the entire state enters another period of lockdowns trying to slow the virus’s spread, Fiumara said it’s “disheartening and frustrating” to have their local efforts impacted by those who continue to flout the guidelines in place to protect the community.

“We get it, people hate some of these restrictions,” he said. “But man, this is like the worst thing we could be doing.”

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