UMATILLA COUNTY — Umatilla County is quickly becoming the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in rural Oregon.
Over the span of a week, the number of reported cases of COVID-19 has grown by 78%, culminating in Umatilla County Public Health’s announcement Friday that the virus had claimed its first county resident, a 76-year-old woman who died at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington.
Despite the surge in case numbers, Umatilla County isn’t altering its plans to begin lifting restrictions by May 15.
Gov. Kate Brown held a video conference with all the Eastern Oregon county commissioners on Friday afternoon, after which Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said there’s been “no indications” that their proposal couldn’t be achieved.
“All numbers are relative,” he said. “The guidelines issued by the state deal with hospitalizations and emergency room visits and would not be impacted by that rise.”
COVID-19 by the numbers
The three new cases announced on Friday bring Umatilla County’s COVID-19 total to 59, a number that lags far behind hot spots like the Portland metro area and Marion County.
But using a per 100,000 population rate, a measurement meant to create direct comparisons by multiplying the total confirmed cases by 100,000 and dividing by total county population, Umatilla County’s infection rate still places it toward the top of the heap.
According to data compiled by Lane County Public Health, Umatilla County’s 69.3 cases per 100,000 population is tied with Linn County for the fourth highest in the state.
Even going by raw totals, Umatilla County is starting to outpace counties with larger populations.
The fourteenth largest county by population, Umatilla County has more cases than any of the counties ranked 9-13. Lane County, a county more than four times larger than Umatilla County, has nine less cases despite conducting nearly five times as many tests.
Alisha Southwick, deputy director of Umatilla County Public Health, attributed the county’s higher ratio of positive test results to the region’s slow start on COVID-19 testing, which limited who could be tested to only those most likely to test positive.
“I think local providers in our county have done a really good job at assessing those who need to be tested the most,” she said.
But in order to effectively track the spread of the virus, officials have repeatedly highlighted the importance of mass testing that isn’t just for those who need it the most, which Umatilla County and the rest of the state may start doing soon.
Gov. Brown announced new testing and contact tracing plans Friday, which included opening up testing criteria to allow anyone with symptoms of the virus to be tested within 48 to 72 hours. The plan is aiming to perform 30 tests per week for every 10,000 Oregonians.
Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie said the recent spike in cases in Umatilla County has caught the eye of the state, which intends to work with the county health department to try to mitigate further infections.
Interviewed on Thursday, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said Umatilla County may not have flattened its curve yet.
According to the latest “epi curve,” which can be found on the health department’s website and shows the particular date that an individual began showing symptoms of the virus, 18 of the county’s confirmed cases began exhibiting signs of COVID-19 in the week after Easter Sunday between April 19 and April 26.
The curve also shows that at least one confirmed case began showing symptoms of the virus each day that week.
Though Fiumara signed off on the reopening plan at the start of the week and said the recent rise in cases is only one piece to consider for the reopening framework, he wasn’t as confident that the state will give the county the go-ahead after seeing the latest data.
“If we’re trending upwards, I’m not sure the state is going to grant it,” he said of the county’s proposal earlier this week. “And I’m not sure I can argue that. All we can really do is follow the data.”
But just a day later, Commissioner Murdock still seemed bullish on the county’s prospects.
While Umatilla County only has one resident who is currently hospitalized with COVID-19, Murdock said the board of commissioners will be following the case numbers closely next week and the proposal to reopen is still subject to change. But as of Friday, Murdock remained confident that May 15 could be the beginning of “Phase 1,” which would loosen some restrictions and reopen some nonessential businesses.
“I feel reopening will be by region, and I feel that rural Eastern Oregon will be leading the charge,” Murdock said. “We can’t guarantee the behaviors of our citizens, but we can guarantee that we’re prepared to deal with any surge that comes from it.”
While the county hasn’t released data that shows it, Southwick said the health department has already identified a local disparity in how COVID-19 is impacting people of different races and ethnicities.
“We see that all diseases have a disproportionate effect on people of different races and ethnicities,” she said. “And looking at the numbers we have, we’ve seen that locally COVID-19 is no different.”
Southwick said the health department may eventually release specific data about the racial and ethnic identities of the county’s confirmed cases, but noted the importance of being careful with what data is presented to the public.
“We’re constantly considering if there’s more information and more data to share with the public,” she said. “But with any data we put out there, we want to ensure that it informs the public about the virus and that it isn’t used to stigmatize a group of people.”
Statewide, Latinos have been hit particularly hard by the virus. Despite representing only 13% of Oregon’s population, Latinos represent 27% of COVID-19 cases.
Modie, the OHA spokesman, admitted Hispanic communities were being “disproportionately burdened by COVID-19,” a result he said may be caused by unequal access to health care and workplaces that may not allow for proper social distancing.
The county isn’t releasing racial or ethnic data, but there are some indications that the same trend may be happening locally.
The two communities hardest hit by COVID-19 — Hermiston and Umatilla — both have significant Latino populations.
Just a few miles west, Morrow County officials are reporting that Boardman, one of the few majority Latino cities in the state, has the lion’s share of coronavirus cases in the county.