We were headed to Portland on March 2 when my husband learned of a coronavirus closure at work due to a presumed positive test. Some days later COVID-19 was officially here in Umatilla County.
Eleven weeks later, the case count is 90. With testing recently ramped up bringing higher numbers, and some outbreak events worrying county public health officials, civic leaders were in suspense as to the way forward. Our most recent curve line now signals a slower pace of case increase over the previous several weeks. What do the numbers mean to us? Apparently, they were good enough to have passed muster for the first phase of the state’s reopening.
This is indeed good news.
Still, it’s a time for caution in moving beyond shutdown. How comfortable are we with taking it easier than we have over the last few weeks? Many are eager to see family and friends, under best circumstances outdoors, or maybe not. So many more want to get back to work. With news reporting the worst scenarios elsewhere, we might be less concerned. And yet, by some data comparisons, we are only doing better than Multnomah and Marion counties, which are still under stay-at-home guidelines. Our ability to test and contact trace at recommended levels squeezed us through.
How does Umatilla County compare with other counties, as we think of ourselves as rural, not accustomed to the intensities reported west of the Cascades? Umatilla County Public Health on Thursday, May 14, reported 1,181 total tests, with 90 confirmed positive, 1,091 negative, and two deaths. When compared to, other more populous counties, our case intensity is measured by share of population. A fraction with a lower denominator indicates higher intensity, while higher denominators point to a weaker intensity as documented on the New York Times case tracker on May 13, 2020. In reading these I had to remind myself of elementary school fractions — one half is equivalent to 50%, while one quarter is only 25%. By this measure, Umatilla County is third in the state of Oregon, behind Marion and Multnomah counties. It may be helpful to think about the last time we attended functions with these denominator numbers.
• Multnomah County documents one case/850 in the Portland Metro area, followed by our one case/874 in Umatilla County.
• We show roughly 30% greater intensity than the statewide average, one case/1,212.
• We rank much higher than counties with larger population centers, such as Lane County, population 382,000 and home to Eugene (one case/6,047), and Deschutes County, population 198,000 and home to Bend (one case/1,985).
Living in smaller communities, we have a higher likelihood of encounters with people from a wider swath of our region than for those living in larger urban areas. Think of the random shopping encounters we have in a place like Pendleton or Hermiston. So it does matter that our intensity numbers are higher than places with larger populations.
Of greater concern are numbers in the neighboring counties north of us in Washington. The following case intensity and population numbers — from The New York Times case tracker — are for the counties we’ve visited with some regularity in pre-pandemic days, and for comparison, an urban county to our north whose intensity number is much lower than ours. Keep in mind that the lower the denominator, the stronger the case intensity:
• Walla Walla County 61,000 – 1/563
• Benton County 204,000 – 1/265
• Franklin County 95,000 – 1/171
• Spokane County 523,000 – 1/1277
Our proximity to a neighbor state with higher numbers suggests that our opening move forward with a sense of caution. Since our first case in Umatilla County, we’ve also learned that symptoms range beyond dry cough and respiratory breakdown, fever and chills to include loss of taste and smell, cardiac breakdown and other organ failure, stroke, and minor symptoms, such as skin lesions, and children are showing impacts in serious ways.
If we continue to stay safe by limiting contact with others as much as possible, and follow protective guidelines in public out of consideration for those most vulnerable among us of all ages, we should be able to see our rural curve continue to decline and experience economic improvement as businesses begin to reopen again.