UMATILLA COUNTY — Following a week of reporting 255 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the ninth death of a county resident who had tested positive for the virus, Umatilla County now sits atop the state with 151.2 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
The county has reported 1,261 confirmed and presumptive cases of the virus as of Friday, July 17, and the Oregon Health Authority identified 629 of those cases within the Hermiston ZIP code, the most cases within a single ZIP code in the entire state.
As local and state officials try to figure out how to best stem the ongoing spread of the virus, Umatilla County has asked the state to help develop a free testing event targeted at residents who have struggled to get access to testing.
“We need to explore the idea of doing what we can to make testing more readily available, particularly to those people who may have some difficulty affording it,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said at a county meeting on July 15.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, Umatilla County residents have been tested at a rate of 911 people per 10,000, which is above the statewide average of 764.
But as Hermiston’s cases have spiked them to the top of the state, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara highlighted that many of the county’s Hispanic and Latino residents live in that area and have been disproportionately affected by the virus. And some have been unable to get tested when they’ve needed it.
“We’ve had reports from Hispanic individuals that it’s taken them multiple attempts to get tested when they met all the criteria initially,” Fiumara said. “It’s just kind of exacerbating the inequities that we already knew were here.”
The Register-Guard reported Lane County tested 320 frontline workers for free on July 15 in Eugene, and some local officials think a similarly targeted testing event could help address the outbreak in Umatilla County.
Umatilla County Chair John Shafer said July 16 that the county reached out to the Oregon Health Authority about acquiring state assistance to plan a similar event in the area.
A spokesperson with the Oregon Health Authority stated in a July 17 email that the state was unaware of any testing events planned at this time.
“OHA’s role in such events is to coordinate support to the counties as needed and available,” the email stated. “We maintain open lines of communication with our local public health partners to ensure that any local needs related to testing events and the broader COVID-19 response can be conveyed to us.”
Fiumara said he’s less keen on the need for a large-scale testing event of those without symptoms. However, he’s in favor of targeted solutions, specifically those that will help keep workers home when necessary.
“It’s about providing a mechanism for some of these workplaces and employers who traditionally haven’t maybe provided a lot of sick leave or have the money to make the changes to get by if their staff are to stay home,” Fiumara said.
Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston held its first drive-thru testing event on Monday, July 13, where more than 150 people, both with and without symptoms, were able to be tested. Caitlin Cozad, the hospital’s marketing and communications director, stated in a July 14 email that the hospital was hoping to host more testing events in the future as “resources and capacity allow.”
But as testing ramps up in Umatilla County and all across the nation, both those things are starting to come in shorter and shorter supply.
“Many labs across the country are having difficulty keeping up with the specimens submitted,” Cozad stated. “(Good Shepherd) has been contracted with Lab Corp, which is taking anywhere between 2 and 10 days for COVID-19 test results.”
On the other hand, Harry Geller, chief executive officer of St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, said sample collection and testing turnaround time has yet to be significantly impacted by any shortages.
“Turnaround time is excellent, typically between under 24 hours up to 48 hours. Occasionally it exceeds 48 hours,” he stated in a July 17 email.
St. Anthony Clinic has collected nearly 500 samples for COVID-19 tests as of July 17, according to Geller, and can collect up to 30 samples per day. However, the clinic is currently only taking samples for individuals who have symptoms or have been exposed to a known case of the virus.
Each individual who is admitted to the hospital for treatment or is receiving elective surgery will be tested, with or without symptoms, Geller stated.
The Pendleton hospital hasn’t held a drive-thru testing event yet, but Geller indicated its hospital’s parent organization, CommonSpirit Health, may be hosting events at each of its hospitals, including in Pendleton, in September as long as supplies allow.
Fiumara said he’s started to hear reports of labs struggling to continue quick turnaround times, which complicates the health department’s attempt to adequately evaluate and respond to case data.
While the health department remains optimistic that the virus’s local epi curve, which indicates the day that someone began to show symptoms, currently shows the recent surge having peaked on June 24, Fiumara cautioned that delayed testing results could impact that.
“The danger with those epi curves is they’re only as good as the data we have,” he said. “You could have a good 7-10 day period where we’re waiting on results for that period.”
Fiumara said some long-term care facilities in the area have recently conducted mass testing events that could change how that curve looks in the coming weeks, but for now he’s hopeful that the numbers are beginning to slow again as people have been reminded of COVID-19’s presence in the community.
While wearing masks, staying inside and away from others can be frustrating to deal with, Fiumara preached patience as a key to slowing the surge and eventually returning to some semblance of normalcy.
“We’re going to get there, it’s just going to take some more time,” he said.