Malheur County gets green light from state to move on to next eligibility group

Malheur County has been given the go-ahead from the Governor’s Office to open COVID-19 vaccine eligibility a week ahead of time to Phase 1b Group 6, which includes people age 45-64 with one or more health conditions, people who work in agriculture and food processing, people experiencing unstable housing, and others. The expanded eligibility will help vaccine providers in the county, including the Malheur County Health Department, use the increasing supply of vaccine that is available.

“We could have vaccinated a lot more people than we did last Thursday,” MCHD Director Sarah Poe said. “We administered 121 of the 300 doses we had available. Opening up eligibility will enable us to use a lot more of the vaccine we have coming into the county.”

Approval to expand eligibility came by way of email on Friday evening, just hours after a letter was submitted to the Governor’s Office requesting eligibility for Groups 6 and 7 of the state’s eligibility timeline.

“We have plans to continue weekly vaccine clinics, to support additional healthcare providers and pharmacies, and to start taking vaccine to locations where disproportionately affected populations live and work. This includes very rural communities, onion sheds, and organizations that serve people experiencing houselessness. This takes a great effort logistically, especially to not waste doses when vials are opened. To encourage more vaccine-hesitant and vulnerable people to be vaccinated, we believe we will be more effective if we can open the groups that include people over 16 with an underlying health condition and those in multi-generational housing. We have not been able to use all the vaccine we have available with the eligibility as it is,” the letter stated.

All groups that have become eligible so far remain eligible as new groups are added. It is important that people understand this, Poe said, because data released today by the state shows that Malheur County is behind the state average in vaccinating seniors. As of March 15, the state average for people age 65 and over who have had at least one vaccine dose is 53.69%. In Malheur County, it’s 43.72%. “That’s concerning because Malheur County is one of the easiest places in the state to get a vaccine, and older adults are at highest risk of severe disease,” she said.

All Oregonians age 16 and over will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1.

In additional to MCHD, the following health care providers and pharmacies currently offer COVID-19 vaccines:

  • Valley Family Health Care:
    • Vale, 541-473-2101
    • Ontario, 541-889-2340
    • Nyssa, 541-372-5738
    • TVWC, 541-881-2800
    • TVPC, 541-889-2668
  • Stark Medical, Ontario, 541-889-2244
  • Bi-Mart, Ontario, 541-889-2141
  • Walmart, Ontario, 541-889-6040
  • Malheur Drug, Vale, 541-473-3333
  • Malheur Memorial Health, Nyssa, 541-372-2211
  • Medicap Pharmacy, Nyssa, 541-372-2222

Agricultural workers become eligible for vaccine on Monday

Governor Kate Brown announced during a press conference today that the state’s COVID-19 vaccine timeline has been accelerated to meet the federal promise of eligibility for all adults by May 1. Additionally, counties with agricultural workers have been given the flexibility to vaccinate that population beginning March 22.

“This is great news for Malheur County, whose economy relies heavily on the health and well-being of these valued and essential workers,” Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said. “We are ready to begin vaccinating this population and have been working with food processors and onion sheds to make plans for scheduling vaccines at worksites throughout the county.”

Speeding up the eligibility timeline in Malheur County was one of three COVID-19-related requests the county made in a letter submitted to the governor’s office today. Signed by Poe and Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, the letter asks the state to:

  • Move Malheur County to a “medium sized” county for the purpose of risk assessment
  • Change the county risk metrics to match the recently updated “Ready Schools Safe Learners” guidance
  • Allow Malheur County to immediately open vaccination eligibility to Phase 1B, Groups 6 and 7

“We have plans to continue weekly vaccine clinics, to support additional healthcare providers and pharmacies, and to start taking vaccine to locations where disproportionately affected populations live and work. This includes very rural communities, onion sheds, and organizations that serve people experiencing houselessness. This takes a great effort logistically, especially to not waste doses when vials are opened,” the letter states.

The letter also requests that the roughly 3,000 adults in custody at Snake River Correctional Institution be removed from Malheur County’s population count, which would change the metrics the state uses to determine the county’s risk level.

“We appreciate the fact that your office removes Adults in Custody (AIC) residing at Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) when determining the case rates for our county. We request that the nearly 3,000 AIC also be removed from the population number for consistency and recognition that they are not contributing to community spread. Removing 2,900 AIC from the approximate 32,000 population of Malheur County would take us out of the large county group. … The metrics seem to be divided by county size to be fair and in this unique situation, Malheur is unfairly considered a large county without the same risks and population outside of SRCI.”

The letter also points out that until recently, school and county metrics mirrored each other. Now, school-setting guidance in the updated “Ready Schools Safe Learners” document is less restrictive than general population guidance, even though school settings are less protected.

“Risk categories that respond to the falling risk statewide, especially given increased protection with immunization, makes the most sense. Our schools are the setting that will have some of the least protection from immunization, considering children are not yet eligible,” the letter states.

“We appreciate all the hard work at the state level and we’re hopeful that Gov. Brown will take our requests into consideration. Our priority continues to be the health of our community, which includes not just physical health but social, emotional, and financial health as well. The issues addressed in today’s letter have an impact on all of those,” Poe said.

Other COVID-19 updates from today’s press conference include:

  • Beginning on March 22, counties that attest to having largely completed vaccinations of seniors can start offering vaccine to adults age 45+ who have underlying health conditions.
  • No later than April 19, vaccine eligibility opens to frontline workers and people of all ages with underlying health conditions.
  • On May 1, vaccine eligibility opens to all Oregonians age 16+.
  • All Oregonians will have had the opportunity for at least one dose of vaccine by the end of May.
  • To date, 938,900 Oregonians have received at least one vaccine dose, just less than 1 out of every 3 adults.
  • “We need somewhere between 7 or 8 out of 10 Oregonians to get vaccinated in order to achieve critical mass and shut down the virus so it can’t spread and put more lives and livelihoods at risk,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.

Video Links
• A recording of today’s live-streamed press conference is available here. Please note the video starts at the 31:30 mark.
• A recording of a Spanish language translation is available on OHA’s Facebook page here. Please note the video starts at the 1:03 mark.

Promise of more vaccine doses moves up eligibility timeline

Yesterday during a weekly vaccine update meeting, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen shared that Oregon expects to get more COVID-19 doses from the federal government in the coming weeks, allowing eligibility to open up to everyone 16 and older by May 1. That is two months sooner than previously estimated.

“The state will continue to make equity the center of our vaccine distribution efforts, ensuring that seniors, people with underlying conditions, frontline workers, and the Oregonians most vulnerable to COVID-19 have the opportunity for vaccinations as soon as possible,” OHA stated in a Coronavirus Update on Wednesday.

Currently, Oregonians age 65 and older are being prioritized. No later than March 29, eligibility will open to:

  • Adults 45–64 with one or more underlying health conditions with increased risk
  • Migrant and seasonal farm workers
  • Seafood and agricultural workers
  • Food processing workers
  • People living in low-income senior housing, senior congregate and independent living
  • Individuals experiencing houselessness (sheltered and unsheltered)
  • People currently displaced by wildfires
  • Wildland firefighters
  • Pregnant people 16 and older

For more information about qualifying underlying health conditions, view the state’s vaccine distribution plan, available in English and Spanish.

Warning Week: Malheur County case rate solidly in Moderate Risk range

Malheur County’s case rate over the two-week period from Feb. 28 through March 13 gives the county solid footing in the Moderate Risk level of the state’s four-tier system, explained here, that is designed to help communities reduce the spread of COVID-19. This week is a Warning Week during which no Risk Level assignments are scheduled to occur.

Based on population, Malheur County’s risk level is determined by two indicators: case rate (number of cases per 100,000 people) and test positivity rate. This week’s Risk Level Metrics report shows that there were 22 cases of COVID-19 reported, equal to a case rate of 68.7. Moderate Risk range is a case rate of 50 to <100. The county’s test positivity rate was 1.5%, well within the Lower Risk range.

“We believe the reduction in cases is largely due to the increasing number of people who are vaccinated. We are heartened that we have not lost another life to COVID-19 in more than a month and hope that with more and more people protected by vaccination, we will be able to save more lives and move our county to the Lower Risk level soon,” Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said.

County Risk Levels are updated every two weeks. During a Movement Week next Tuesday, March 23, updated data will be published and county risk levels will be assigned. Any resulting changes to risk levels will take effect on Friday, March 26, and remain in effect for the next two weeks.

County vaccinator reaches bittersweet milestone

Malheur County Ambulance Service District Director Bob Dickinson, center, administers his 1,000th COVID-19 vaccine to Steve Hansen of Ontario. Eric Evans, Malheur County Planning Director and the Incident Command team’s logistics officer, has been Bob’s vaccine assistant for most of those.

Malheur County Ambulance Service District Director Bob Dickinson reached a bittersweet milestone on Thursday when he administered his 1,000th dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination event at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

“In my 30 years in this profession, never in my wildest dreams did I think that what I was training for would lead to this,” Bob said of the pandemic and his role in helping people protect themselves against it. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If this is what I’ve trained my whole life for, it’s meant to be.” He said what he enjoys most about administering COVID-19 vaccines is the joy and hope it brings to people.

As a member of the county’s Incident Command System team, Bob has been administering vaccines at the Malheur County Health Department’s vaccination clinics since they began on Jan. 6. Initially, vaccine clinics were open to 100 pre-registered participants and were scheduled for most of the day. Since then, the MCHD and ICS team has increased its capacity, distributing as many as 668 first and second doses in a day. To date, the team has administered 4,789 doses of vaccine. Bob has contributed about 20% of that total.

“Our command team brings a diverse group of individuals together, with different experience and training,” Malheur County Incident Commander and Emergency Manager Lt. Rich Harriman said. “Not only do we benefit from Bob’s knowledge and expertise when it comes to planning our COVID-19 response, he brings decades of work in the field to our vaccine PODs, giving us high numbers of vaccines administered per event. He makes it fun. I wouldn’t want to do it without him.”

Malheur County will remain at Moderate Risk despite case rate

Malheur County’s COVID-19 case rate was just high enough over the past two weeks to tip it back into High Risk when risk levels are adjusted statewide this Friday, but an update to the state’s risk level system and a new two-week caution period, announced last week by Governor Kate Brown, will allow the county to remain at Moderate Risk for now.

An announcement by Gov. Brown today confirmed that Malheur County will remain at Moderate Risk and explains a modification to last week’s updated risk levels.

Beginning this week, counties that reduced their COVID-19 spread enough to move down in risk level in the previous two-week period, but see their numbers go back up in the next two-week period, will be given a two-week caution period to bring COVID-19 case rates back down again. Malheur County was one of two counties affected by the new caution period; the other is Jackson County, which qualified for Extreme Risk but will stay at High.

According to today’s announcement, “the caution period will allow counties to re-focus efforts to drive back down creeping case numbers, and give local businesses additional certainty on their plans for operating. If, at the end of the caution period, case rate data still puts the county at a higher risk level, the county will move to that level.”

“We applaud Gov. Brown in her decision to give Oregon counties the opportunity to avoid the see-saw effect that Movement Weeks can bring, particularly for counties the size of Malheur. One small outbreak can make the difference between risk levels, and that uncertainty from week to week is a hardship on our business community that is already reeling,” Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said.

Today’s Risk Level Summary, released weekly by the Oregon Governor’s Office on this webpage, shows that Malheur County had 33 positive cases of COVID-19 between Feb. 21 and March 6, making the case rate (number of cases per 100,000 people), 103. Case rates between 100 and 200 are considered High Risk.

Two fewer cases over the last reporting period would have qualified the county to stay at Moderate Risk without the help of a caution period.

“Just two cases in a community with a population of over 32,000 – that really makes clear the role that each of us has in getting and keeping Malheur County open. If you are eligible, get vaccinated, and please continue to do your part by wearing a mask, limiting gatherings, practicing physical distancing, staying home if you feel unwell, and getting tested if you believe you may have been exposed to COVID-19,” Poe said.

Effective March 12 through March 25, there will be two counties in the Extreme Risk level, nine at High Risk, 12 at Moderate Risk, and 13 at Lower Risk. A complete list of counties and their associated risk levels is available here

Updates to county risk levels will be posted to coronavirus.oregon.gov.

Warning Week: Malheur County could be moving to High Risk if case rate doesn’t decrease

After bypassing the High Risk level last week, current numbers indicate that Malheur County could be moved back a step when the state adjusts its risk level summary for Oregon counties next week. Such a change would result in a decrease in occupancy allowed at eating and drinking establishments, shopping centers, entertainment venues, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor services and activities.

The risk levels are part of a four-tier system used by the Oregon Health Authority to help counties reduce the spread of COVID-19. The system uses testing data to determine risk and provide guidance on public safety measures, such as occupancy limits and closures. Last Friday, after meeting the criteria to move two levels from Extreme to Moderate Risk, many of Malheur County’s businesses were allowed to open for indoor service for the first time since the risk level system was implemented following a statewide two-week freeze in November.

Based on population, Malheur County’s risk level is determined by two indicators: case rate (number of cases per 100,000 people) and test positivity rate. This week’s report, which can be accessed from this webpage, shows that from Feb. 14 through Feb. 27, Malheur County’s case rate was 159.2 and test positivity rate was 4.5%. The test positivity rate is in the Lower Risk range but the case rate falls in the High Risk category. These numbers include adults in custody reported by Snake River Correctional Institution. The final weekly report, from which those cases are removed for the purpose of determining risk level, has not yet been updated this week by the Governor’s Office.

Oregon counties are currently in Week One, also called the Warning Week, which allows counties to prepare for a potential risk level change. No change to risk levels will take place as a result of this week’s report.

During Week Two, also called the Movement Week, updated data is published and county risk levels are assigned. Risk levels take effect on Fridays and remain in effect for two weeks while the process repeats. The next risk level change will take place on March 12. It will be based on data collected from Feb. 21 through March 6.

Sexually transmitted infections show increase in Malheur County

If COVID-19 cases were factored out of Malheur County’s communicable disease assessment for 2020, sexually transmitted infections would take the lead in number of cases throughout the county. Out of 405 non-COVID communicable diseases reported in 2020, 315 (78%) were STIs.

The 2020 Communicable Diseases in Malheur County report encompasses data from health care providers throughout the county and offers a detailed look at disease counts, 5-year trends, and demographics. It was prepared by epidemiologist Daniel Morris, MS, PhD.

The report concludes that STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV, are on the rise locally. Chlamydia was the most common infection, but gonorrhea was the fastest growing, with four times the number of cases in 2020 (91) than in 2019 (23). There were 5 cases of HIV reported in 2020, compared to none in 2019. Syphilis showed a slight decline, with 5 cases reported in 2020 compared to 6 cases in 2019.

“Those numbers are significant, especially when you consider that COVID-19 more than likely resulted in fewer people being tested for STIs in 2020 than in previous years,” Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said.

Testing for STIs is one way to help control their spread, according to MCHD Communicable Disease Coordinator Angie Gerrard, RN. “Everyone should be tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime, and if there is more than one partner or new partners, we recommend being tested regularly. And, if someone tests positive for one STI, we recommend getting tested for others, since they are transmitted the same way.”

If tests for chlamydia or gonorrhea are positive, patients should ask their provider to write a prescription for themselves as well as their partner so that the infection is not passed back and forth untreated. “We encourage people to contact the Malheur County Health Department if they need help with that,” Gerrard said.

The report shows that:

  • In Malheur County’s population centers, rates were highest in Ontario and lowest in Vale. 
  • In 2018 and 2019, about two-thirds of the STI cases were among women. In 2020, only 56% of cases were among women, mainly because of a large increase in gonorrhea cases among men. Gonorrhea cases have been on the rise in the region and across the nation. The five HIV cases in 2020 were all in men, ages 18-36.
  • From 2018 to 2020, people ages 18-25 accounted for a little more than half of all STI cases, and people ages 26-35 made up about 30% of cases.
  • The number of people with more than one STI increased from 15 in 2019 to 51 in 2020. If a person has a positive test for a disease more than a month after a previous positive test, a new case is created. This jump in multiple cases could indicate reinfection, which can happen if a person’s partner does not receive treatment.
  • Reports of non-STI communicable disease were mostly down in 2020. These include diseases such as Hepatitis C, tuberculosis, campylobacter, lead poisoning, salmonella, E. coli, West Nile Virus, giardia, Lyme, listeria, and several others. Overall, reports of non-STI diseases dropped from 133 in 2019 to 90 in 2020, “though this may be a reflection of fewer people seeking health care because of COVID,” the report states.

Predictably, COVID-19 overshadowed all other diseases in Malheur County in 2020. There were 3,008 reported cases – roughly 10% of the county population.

OHA director marks 1 year since first case of COVID-19 in Oregon with open letter to residents

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen released an open letter to Oregonians on Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of Oregon’s first COVID-19 case. He asks state residents to maintain pandemic precautions and choose to be vaccinated. Read the letter here.

“But there’s another number Oregonians should bear in mind, especially as we confront the coming months of the pandemic: 4,000. That’s approximately the number of lives you’ve saved by wearing a mask, limiting in-person gatherings and maintaining social distance.”