PENDLETON — Less than a month after Oregon lifted nearly all pandemic mandates, Umatilla County residents once again are being asked to mask up in public indoor settings to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In a statement, Umatilla County Public Health aligned with recent recommendations from the state and federal government that everybody, including fully vaccinated people, should wear masks indoors “due to a substantial increase in Umatilla County’s COVID-19 case rate.”

“What we’re seeing from the delta variant supports that more spread is happening,” said Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara. “While masks do not stop all spread, they do help limit it.”

Umatilla County has state’s highest case rate

On Tuesday, July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the mask recommendations and called for teachers, staff, students and school visitors to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status or how much the virus is spreading through communities. However, health experts maintain that vaccinations remain the public’s best bet to curb the spread of the virus.

The CDC says people should wear masks indoors if they live in areas where case rates exceed more than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents for the past week, or if more than 8% of tests are positive for that same period.

The Oregon Health Authority does not publish case rates over seven days in its weekly metrics, but a report on July 26 shows that, from July 11-22, Umatilla County saw a case rate of 504 new cases per 100,000 people — by far the highest in the state.

During that same period, 17.6% of all tests came back positive, the second highest in Oregon, just behind Morrow County’s 17.9%.

The move back to masking was prompted by a national increase in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly infectious delta variant, which is tearing through unvaccinated communities. It’s a dismaying sign to health experts that the pandemic has yet to abate, as cases and hospitalizations ramp up to levels that rival last winter’s surge.

“At this point, you’re either going to get the virus or you’re going to get vaccinated,” Fiumara said. He added that masks are a “tool that we can use to try to not overload the hospitals and — not to be too blunt — not end up with a whole bunch of dead people.”

OHA reported two new COVID-19 deaths in Umatilla County on July 28, raising the county’s death toll to 94.

One victim was a 33-year-old man with underlying health conditions who tested positive and died on July 24 at Kadlec Regional Medical Center, Richland, Washington. The other was a 90-year-old woman who tested positive July 23 and died July 27. The state has yet to confirm where she died and if she had underlying conditions.

“The mask is not about protecting yourself,” Fiumara said. “The mask is about protecting those you interact with.”

The recommendations come as Umatilla County reports one of the largest COVID-19 case spikes in Oregon, with about 8% of the state’s total cases over the past two weeks despite accounting for just 2% of its population. The county’s case rate during that same time period was more than seven times higher than Multnomah and Washington counties, which each have more than 500,000 more residents than Umatilla County.

Health officials say the surge is largely due to social gatherings and large summer events that have ensued since the state lifted all pandemic restrictions on June 30. Infection is spreading almost entirely among unvaccinated people, health officials say.

Less than 40% of Umatilla County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to federal data.

Hospitalizations spike

The masking recommendations also come as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge statewide and at some regional hospitals.

More than half of all patients currently hospitalized at CHI St. Anthony in Pendleton have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a hospital spokesperson.

The hospital has reported a “significant uptick” in positive COVID-19 cases over the past week, nearing peak numbers last winter, the spokesperson, Emily Smith, said in an email. Fourteen people have been hospitalized with the virus over the past seven days, with eight hospitalized on July 26 alone.

Local hospitals will sometimes refer critically ill patients to other facilities for a higher level of care. But regional hospitals have been “unable to accept transfers” because they are full with patients, Smith said.

For one patient in need of a transfer, health care workers reached out to 15 different hospitals before finding one with an available bed, Smith said.

“We’re seeing a big surge,” Fiumara said. “And if they’re already having issues with having enough room and being able to transfer people out when appropriate, that doesn’t speak well for if this surge continues.”

On July 23 and July 24 alone, approximately 40% of patients who came to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms tested positive. None had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The emergency department’s physician director on July 26, reported a threefold increase in patients testing positive in the department during the past five days, Smith said.

Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston said they are also seeing an increase in hospitalizations and positive COVID-19 tests. Five people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 at the facility in the past week as more patients are coming to the emergency department and Good Shepherd Urgent Care with COVID-19 symptoms, according to Caitlin Cozad, the hospital’s spokesperson.

The hospital’s testing positivity rate has also more than doubled since earlier this month. From June 29 to July 12, 9.3% of tests came back positive. And from July 13 to July 26, that number jumped to 23.5%.

Fiumara said he expects hospitalization rates to continue to climb, as is common when infection skyrockets.

Just a few weeks ago, CHI St. Anthony’s tested 73 people. Five of those tests came back positive, amounting to a positive test rate of 6.8%. But in the past seven days, the hospital has tested 107 people with 28 coming back positive. That’s a positivity rate of 26.1% — a number that doesn’t include the patients who come to the hospital known to have COVID-19.

The hospital reports between 25% and 30% of its daily visits now are due to COVID-19, which Smith said “has risen dramatically in the last week.”

Since the pandemic began, Umatilla County has reported 9,395 COVID-19 cases. That’s roughly 12% of the county’s population.

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Reporter primarily covering government and public safety in Umatilla and Morrow County.

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