WESTON — The coronavirus has arrived in Eastern Oregon.
The Oregon Health Authority announced Monday that it had a third presumptive case of coronavirus diagnosed in Umatilla County. Preliminary reports indicate the county resident attended a youth basketball game in the gymnasium at Weston Middle School, 205 E. Wallace St., in Weston, on Saturday, Feb. 29. The person is hospitalized in Walla Walla, Washington, the health authority said.
Athena-Weston School District officials have closed the gym and are deep cleaning out of an abundance of caution. The gym is physically detached from the rest of the school. Health officials do not consider the separate school building to pose any risk of exposure.
OHA is investigating the case to see how many other people came into close contact with the victim. Under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, other spectators who may have been in a closed environment with the individual would be considered “low-risk” exposures.
Athena-Weston School District Superintendent Laure Quaresma told the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin that the victim is a man who didn’t have kids in the district and the game at the middle school gym was not affiliated with any of the district’s sports teams.
“We don’t have kids with any symptoms,” she told the Union-Bulletin. “We know what to look for and we have been in close contact with Oregon Health Authority.”
The person diagnosed with coronavirus, more specifically known as COVID-19, is also an employee at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation confirmed Monday.
As a precaution, the tribes’ board of trustees ordered the tribes to close Wildhorse Resort & Casino, Nixyaawii Community School, Head Start, Daycare and Senior Center to be closed until all facilities have been fully sanitized and canceled all events on the Umatilla Indian Reservation for the week.
CTUIR spokesman Chuck Sams told the Associated Press that the Wildhorse employee worked in a confined area of the casino and not with the general public.
In a conference call with the media, local and statewide health officials tried to caution the public against overreacting to the news while acknowledging the seriousness of the virus.
Umatilla County Public Health Director Joseph Fiumara said his department was starting to receive calls from people concerned about the virus.
“Our entire public health team is diligently working away at following every link we can, and identifying everybody who is potentially at risk and trying to respond to public requests as they come in,” he said. “But we are being overloaded with calls.”
Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer, also urged caution.
“We know that this disease can cause serious illness and has resulted in thousands of deaths across the world, but we want to remind people that the vast majority of people infected with COVID-19 will have a mild disease,” he said.
He added that people more likely to suffer more serious symptoms are the elderly and people with other health problems like respiratory issues, heart disease, obesity or diabetes.
Although this particular strain of virus originated in China, Chinese food and products manufactured or shipped from China aren’t public health threats.
Sidelinger said the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory has the ability to test the virus, but because it’s so new, the state is referring to each case as “presumptive” until the CDC can confirm the diagnosis on a retest.
The previous two cases were in the Portland metro area, and with no suspected commonality between them and the Umatilla County case, Sidelinger said Oregonians should expect the virus to spread further in the coming days.
“We anticipate that these case numbers will increase and we may see more serious illnesses and possibly even deaths within Oregon,” he said.
In wake of the news, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock booked an emergency flight home from the National Association of Counties legislative conference in Washington, D.C., which he and the other commissioners were attending to get face time with FEMA and federal legislative staff in hopes of securing funding for the county’s flood recovery efforts.
“We talked as commissioners and felt that in light of the situation, one of us needed to be home,” Murdock said on Monday afternoon before boarding his flight. “My top priority is getting home as fast as possible.”
Meanwhile, other communities in the county are continuing to make preparations.
Pam Schulz, infection control program manager at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston, said the hospital is following guidance from the CDC, OHA and Umatilla County Health Department on screening and other procedures.
“It’s currently a moving target,” she said. “We have a plan we’ve modified three times since Friday and we’re modifying it again today.”
Schulz said so far Good Shepherd has not had problems getting medical supplies, such as masks, despite an increase in purchases of those items by the general public.
If someone has mild or moderate symptoms they believe may be coronavirus, such as a cough, they can consult with their primary care provider. More serious symptoms, such as shortness of breath may need treatment in the emergency room.
Schulz encouraged people looking for information to consult the CDC website.
“They should make sure they’re getting their information from credible sources,” she said.
In Pendleton, St. Anthony Hospital Chief Executive Officer Harry Geller said the medical center has tightened up access.
“We are restricting access to only patients, staff and vendors,” Geller said. “There are no visitors until further notice. We’re canceling all community groups that meet at the hospital.”
He urged people who start experiencing illness to stay home unless they are seriously ill.
“The emergency room is for critically ill patients,” he said. “Use good judgment out there.”
The COVID-19 is a virus strain that has only spread in people since December 2019. The virus is spread from one person to another through the air by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands, and touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.