HERMISTON — Oregon State University researchers believe 17% of Hermiston residents were positive for COVID-19 during the university’s door-to-door testing period on July 25-26.
According to the announcement on the morning of Friday, July 31, field workers from the TRACE COVID-19 study collected 471 samples from 249 randomly selected households across Hermiston on those dates. The news release noted that field workers knocked on more than those 249 doors, but only 44% of homes contacted agreed to participate in the free, voluntary test.
The study had previously announced it would take as many as 10 days for people to receive their results from the lab, but OSU Vice President pf University Relations Steve Clark said they ended up expediting the results and people began getting notifications as quickly as Wednesday, July 29.
The results suggest that about 3,000 people in the city were carrying the virus on July 25-26. Of those who tested positive, 80% reported not having any symptoms at the time.
Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara and Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock told the East Oregonian that the results showing wide community spread in Hermiston were a factor in the state’s decision to bring the county back to “stay home” status on July 31 — something Gov. Kate Brown confirmed to the newspaper’s Capital Bureau.
Mayor David Drotzmann said in a statement that the results constituted a “significant warning” for Hermiston.
“We now have a clearer picture of how many people are carrying this disease without knowing it, and how rapidly it is spreading family to family, household to household,” he said.
The TRACE team also tested for COVID-19 in samples of wastewater taken from Hermiston and Boardman’s recycled water treatment plants, and reported the levels of the virus in the sewage were “significantly higher” than anywhere else in the state that the team has tested.
The results of the study were made public the morning after Gov. Kate Brown announced that Umatilla County would be placed back to “stay home, save lives” shutdown status starting at noon on July 31. In a statement in OSU’s news release, she said the results of the study “confirms what we have feared based on weeks of troubling data from the Oregon Health Authority.”
One of several metrics that Brown cited in her announcement of the shutdown was that 45% of Umatilla County’s cases in the past week were “sporadic” cases that contact tracers were not able to trace back to a specific person, suggesting a high rate of community spread rather than a few isolated pockets. State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said the OSU study — which found that half of the 30 neighborhoods visited had at least one positive resident — confirmed that Hermiston has “wide community spread.”
Ben Daziel, a co-director of TRACE COVID-19, said the results were cause for concern because efforts to test and isolate people when they show symptoms will not be enough.
“TRACE does two things,” Dalziel said in a statement. “First, we find and get help to participants who are infected but do not know they are, which reduces the chances of these folks unknowingly spreading the virus to other people. Second, we rapidly estimate how widespread the virus is in the general population, which informs public health strategies. Rapid, representative estimates of community prevalence provide a different type of information than case counts or hospitalizations, since those indicators tend to lag behind current conditions and are biased toward individuals who show symptoms.”
Hermiston’s results are significantly higher than the first round of testing in other cities where TRACE has been conducted. In Corvallis, OSU estimated two in every 1,000 people had COVID-19 during the weekend in question. In Bend, that number was one in every 1,000. In Newport, it was 34. In Hermiston, it is an estimated 169 out of every 1,000 people.
At 44%, Hermiston also had much lower participation rates than the other cities, which ranged between 68-80%.
In addition to the test results, OSU also released information about what Umatilla County residents can do to slow the spread of the virus to a level where businesses and schools can reopen.
Staying home while sick is important, researchers said, but the high rate of asymptomatic carriers also shows why it is important to strictly follow guidelines about wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart from all non-household members, and avoid being around other people more than necessary. People should also quarantine if they were exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Miguel Ascencio, a community health worker with the ConneXions program at Good Shepherd Medical Center, said volunteering as TRACE team member was eye-opening to see how widespread misinformation and misconceptions about the virus were in Hermiston. He urged people to do their part to help protect the community from a virus they might not even know they were spreading.
“The biggest thing they can do is to wear their face coverings,” Ascencio said. “It might be annoying to wear it, but they have got to think of their family members — their kids, their grandparents — because they are putting their lives at risk. Wearing a mask can go such a long ways when out in public or in the stores.”