UMATILLA COUNTY — A fear held among county officials since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic became reality Friday, July 31, as Gov. Kate Brown sent Umatilla County back to the beginning of the state’s reopening plans and closed all “nonessential” businesses for at least the next three weeks.
After hoping the first wave of closures would be a short-term solution with long-term benefits, the county is now leaning on the latest closures to slow the ongoing spread of the virus that has made Umatilla County home to the most cases per capita in the state and the 75th most in the nation.
“I hope so,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said of the reinstated closures’ effectiveness. “It’s a heavy burden.”
In the new phase, referred to by the state as “Baseline,” only businesses, such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open and restaurants must move to a takeout-only model, while salons, barbers and other personal care services will need to close.
While the state considered moving the county backward in phases last week, local officials argued the difference between Phase 1 and Phase 2, which mostly includes the ability for recreational activities to resume and associated venues to reopen, would have little impact on the rising cases without imposing other changes, too.
“I can’t tell you with 100% belief behind it that I believe it is now,” said Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara. “I do think that going to Baseline is going to have a better effect than Phase 1 would have had.”
Brown and the state ultimately pointed to the county’s case numbers in relation to its population, the number of cases that haven’t been traced to a known source, and the rate of positive test results as too concerning to remain in Phase 2.
As of July 31, Umatilla County has reported 1,862 confirmed cases and has 234.4 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Outbreaks have been identified within the county from social gatherings and at food processing plants, other agricultural settings, nursing homes, prisons, health care providers and other various workplaces. Fiumara said roughly 9% of these outbreaks are tied to social gatherings, while most others can be connected to workplaces.
But the increased case numbers are compounded by 45% of the county’s new cases in the past week that haven’t been connected to a known source.
“The sporadic numbers that we’re seeing in the county that suggest community spread are to the point where it could be happening and we just don’t know it because we haven’t been able to identify it,” Fiumara said.
Fiumara said the county can complete between 40 to 50 case investigations on a “perfect day.” In the month of July, Umatilla County reported anywhere between 22 and 84 new cases on a given day for a total of more than 1,300 total cases, at an average of approximately 45 cases per day.
“We’ve not been able to keep up with the workload,” Fiumara said. “There’s just too much work to get done in the time frame we’re being asked to do it in.”
Those case investigations add up and lead to delays in contact tracing. While those who test positive know to isolate and can personally alert those who they may have exposed, Fiumara said these tracing delays may be leading to individuals spreading the virus without knowing they’ve been exposed.
The state indicated in a July 30 press release that the Oregon Health Authority deployed nine case investigators and 29 contact tracers to the county on June 26. Fiumara said the county has continuously hired more public health staff since the pandemic began and he’s requested additional investigators from the state who are expected to begin helping next week.
Fiumara also noted other counties that aren’t being overwhelmed by cases have reached out to help and contracts are being finalized to begin receiving that assistance.
Expanding tracing abilities is critical if the county decides to increase the amount of testing being done, which will likely be required in order to reduce the current weekly positive test rate of 23%. Public health experts have said keeping this rate at or below 5% indicates a community is doing enough testing and accurately tracking the spread of COVID-19.
Murdock said the state has provided an additional $1.3 million in funding to help curb the virus’ spread, which the county plans to use toward additional testing and messaging, though details about the plans are still being determined.
Fiumara said a greater emphasis on messaging will be important because he believes the average county resident isn’t ignoring their role in preventing the virus’ spread, but instead they aren’t receiving the messaging to begin with. To combat this, Fiumara said the county is partnering in a messaging campaign to promote best prevention practices that could begin to be rolled out as early as next week.
As the next steps in the county’s response to COVID-19 crystallize in the coming days, Murdock said the onus will lie on the community to collectively do its part to reduce the virus’ spread in order to emerge from the reinstated closures in the coming weeks.
“If the people of Umatilla County want to see us move back out of this phase, then everybody is going to have to contribute by doing what we know we need to do,” he said.