Rapidly rising COVID-19 infections, an ominous public health report from Oregon State University, and a political stalemate led to Gov. Kate Brown's order rolling back the reopening of two Eastern Oregon counties.
"It was clear yesterday afternoon that if we did not act immediately, this could spread like wildfire," Brown said Friday in an interview with EO Media Group. "More people would die unless we took really quick action."
It was the first time the state had reversed a county's progress under the phased reopening plan announced in mid-April. Umatilla County was moved two phases back to baseline, the highly restrictive rules in place at the end of the spring peak of the pandemic's spread in Oregon.
For Umatilla County, the move resets the clock to restrictions in place last spring. Residents are encouraged to stay home, minimize travel, work from home if possible, limit public gatherings to 25 people and social gatherings to 10 people. Restaurants must return to take-out only. Most recreational facilities and entertainment venues must close.
If infection rates drop significantly, the county could move to Phase 1 after 21 days.
Brown's Thursday night order also moved Morrow County from phase 2 to phase 1. Morrow County officials said they were working with the state on possible voluntary measures to head-off a return to baseline.
Morrow County ranks 70th and Umatilla County ranks 75th in per capita new coronavirus infection rates among the over 3,000 counties in the United States, according to an analysis of state health records by the New York Times.
Brown said the state's own metrics showed Umatilla has the state's highest COVID-19 infection rate: 234 positive cases per 10,000 residents. Morrow County reported 213 cases per 10,000 people.
The weekly percentage of tests that come back positive in Umatilla County is 23%, well above the statewide average of 5.1 percent. Morrow County's positive test rate is even higher — 30%.
Brown said her decision also was affected by reports she received from OSU'S Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics (TRACE) program. OSU tested 249 households last weekend and found 41 positive cases. The modeling that OSU uses forecasts a 17% citywide positive case load. A second OSU study showed "significantly higher" levels of COVID-19 in wastewater samples taken in Hermiston and Boardman compared to other areas of the state.
In fact, the wastewater samples in the two Eastern Oregon towns produced the highest readings since OSU has been working on the program, OSU officials said.
For the past few weeks, Brown said she and health officials made attempts to get Umatilla County to take voluntary actions. Union and Lincoln counties had voluntarily rolled back from phase 2 to phase 1 when they faced rising infection rates (OSU also participated in testing in Lincoln). The two counties were removed Thursday from the state's watch list of counties where infections are rising beyond acceptable limits.
Brown had hoped to replicate the same pattern with Umatilla County, but she said her overtures were repeatedly rebuffed. She said county commissioners would only follow statewide restrictions.
"Honestly, I have been in contact regularly with the local county commissioners. I would prefer to do things collaboratively, but in this case, it has become a crisis," Brown said.
However, Hermiston Mayor David Drotzmann did tell OSU officials that "the results of this study are a significant warning. We now have a clearer picture of how many people are carrying this disease without knowing it, and how rapidly it is spreading family to family, household to household.”
Brown said she knows the rollback will be a health care and economic burden on the counties and that she would take action to reduce the impact.
Adding more testing is challenging because of a growing nationwide shortage of test kits. Longer waiting periods are widely reported as labs struggle with a backlog of tests.
Brown said she had asked for help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and asked Oregon's congressional delegation to keep up pressure for more supplies.
"It's not looking like it will be coming," she said.
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