UMATILLA COUNTY — At a July 13 press conference, Gov. Kate Brown said there’s been more new COVID-19 cases in the past week than there was during the entire month of May.
Umatilla County has been a big part of that.
On the same day Brown announced new social distancing rules, Umatilla County Public Health updated its COVID-19 statistics to show that the local surge COVID-19 cases is far from over.
In a press release meant to cover COVID-19 cases from Friday afternoon, Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning, Umatilla County announced 122 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 1,114. The public health department also announced the county’s eighth death of a person with the virus, a 54-year-old man who died at home on July 8 and was diagnosed with COVID-19 postmortem on July 9.
At the press conference, Brown and the state’s top health officials left open the possibility of a regional response to the Eastern Oregon outbreak, but didn’t outline anything definitive.
In a July 10 press release, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock detailed a conversation between Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen and leaders from Umatilla and Morrow counties, which have both been placed on a statewide COVID-19 watchlist.
Murdock said the local officials suggested using federal coronavirus relief aid to create some sort of assistance program for frontline workers so they could stay home if they were sick.
“They are workers who are critical to the economy and well-being of Umatilla County and need a safety net that would permit them to survive financially and at the same time protect the health of themselves and their families,” he wrote.
Speaking with the media, Brown praised local officials and said the state has reached out to gauge the situation but otherwise deferred the question of a regional response to Allen.
Allen confirmed he spoke with representatives from Umatilla and Morrow counties, adding that the state offered mutual aid to Union County in the early days of its outbreak.
But he stopped short of detailing a regional prescription for Umatilla and Morrow’s outbreaks.
“Where we can and where it makes sense, we do try to work regionally,” he said.
Workplace outbreaks have been a significant source of COVID-19 in Umatilla and Morrow counties. A July 8 report from OHA showed that Umatilla County has four active outbreaks, including 115 cases tied to Lamb Weston’s Hermiston facility, the third largest outbreak in the state. Morrow County has two workplace outbreaks, both in Boardman.
Responding to a question from The Oregonian‘s Hillary Borrud about what the state would do to stem workplace outbreaks, Brown said Oregon was taking a “surgical approach” to avoid harm to the economy.
“We’re certainly working to balance lives with livelihoods,” she said.
Allen said outbreaks typically follow a cycle, starting in a community setting before being brought to the workplace, where it spreads further before returning to the community again.
The governor’s new rules limiting social gatherings and expanding face mask requirements could help to prevent the virus from entering workplaces, he said.
Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state health officer, said a workplace outbreak doesn’t always mean a company didn’t take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. But said the enclosed working conditions of some industries, like food processing, means the virus can still spread among workers.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Umatilla County’s hospitalizations dropped over the weekend, from 17 to 12. And recovered COVID-19 patients now outnumber active cases, 559 to 547.
As of press time, the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office last updated COVID-19 statistics on July 12, which showed the county is now at 152 cases.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation reported 30 total cases of COVID-19, all tests conducted at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center.