Umatilla County saw one of the largest spikes in daily coronavirus cases this week with an average of 44 cases per day, the second most in Oregon, as the county’s top health official cited workplace outbreaks spurred by sick employees returning to their jobs as a major contributor.
A county commissioner said some people also are refusing to wear masks.
With just under 78,000 residents, the county saw 17% of Oregon’s total cases in the past seven days despite accounting for just 2% of the state’s total population.
The surge in cases comes as state officials reported two days of the state’s highest daily counts of COVID-19 cases with 375 Thursday and 344 Friday.
Among other counties, Umatilla had the highest single-day case count statewide this week with 88 on Thursday. The county’s daily average places it just behind Multnomah County and just ahead of Washington County, which both have over 500,000 more residents.
Joseph Fiumara, Umatilla County’s public health director, said workplace infections are pushing the surge.
Employees with minor symptoms are returning to work to pay rent and support their families as businesses reopen, he said. They have unintentionally caused small outbreaks throughout the county, he said.
“A lot of time, people just don’t think they have the virus,” Fiumara said. “They think it’s allergies. The symptoms are so minor that they go to work for a few days – slight runny nose or scratchy throat – then they go in and get tested and it comes back positive.”
The county’s largest workplace outbreaks have occurred at the Lamb Weston potato factory in Hermiston. State officials have so far reported 72 cases connected with the factory.
Fiumara said the factory’s close working quarters and its “favorable climate” help the virus spread. Food processing plants, with cold temperatures and aggressive ventilation systems that are required to prevent contamination, have been the source of multiple coronavirus outbreaks in the past several weeks due to these conditions, experts say.
Umatilla is now one of eight rural counties placed Friday on a “watch list” by Gov. Kate Brown because of their “alarming levels” of coronavirus spread.
“If the counties do not see a downturn quickly, restrictive measures such as business closures or tighter gathering size limits will ensue,” the governor’s office said in the statement.
While contact tracing throughout Umatilla County has remained manageable within 24 hours, Fiumara said it lately has become much more difficult and county officials have requested help from the Oregon Health Authority.
Dr. Paul Cieslak, the state’s medical director for communicable diseases, said seven health authority officials have been dispatched to the county. He called the increase in the county’s cases “very concerning.”
Cieslak said this week that outbreaks statewide were often being traced back to “multi-household gatherings” such as graduation and birthday parties. The situation becomes even more dire as Oregonians travel for the Fourth of July weekend, increasing the risk of infection, he said.
“A year ago, at this time, around the Fourth of July, graduation time, you could undertake these activities,” Cieslak said. “But in the time of COVID it’ just not a wise thing to do. These are the things that are going to drive our case counts up and make us rethink whether we can safely reopen the state to business.”
When asked at a news conference whether people should cancel their holiday weekend plans, Cieslak responded, “Absolutely.”
As part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the governor has announced a new statewide rule this week that requires Oregonians ages 12 and up to don a face mask in indoor public spaces.
“I do not want to have to close down businesses again like other states are now doing,” Brown said in a statement. “If you want your local shops and restaurants to stay open, then wear a face covering when out in public.”
George Murdock, an Umatilla County commissioner who oversees the county’s response to the virus, said mask-wearing is now a politically divisive topic around the county.
It has become a certain “badge of honor” to not wear a mask, he said. “We’re trying to dispel that notion.”
Though he was initially confident in his county’s ability to handle the challenges of COVID-19, Murdock has grown more concerned as cases rise.
A decline in total cases will be the only way that he would feel confident in the county’s ability to flatten the curve.
“We went for months with pretty low numbers,” Murdock said. “I remember when we were deciding whether or not we’d see over a hundred cases. And we went for months like that. And now, boom, we’re over 500 in a very short period of time. I don’t think any of us will be satisfied until we reverse that trend.”
— Bryce Dole
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