ENTERPRISE — More than 100 residents sat in on a virtual town hall with area and state health officials Tuesday, Nov. 17 to get a specific-to-Wallowa County update on the COVID-19 pandemic and to get questions answered.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and state epidemiologist for the public health division of the Oregon Health Authority, addressed the two-week freeze, which now has been in effect since Wednesday, Nov. 18, and also laws that restrict what information can and can’t be shared about individuals’ health information, and how it comes into play during the pandemic.
“We want to make sure we protect the privacy and confidentiality of the individual,” he said. “We have to balance transparency — telling people what may have put them at risk — with confidentiality.”
The county has seen a surge in cases, but that number has tapered off in the past week. After almost doubling in a month — from 36 cases on Oct. 13 to 70 cases as of Nov. 17, the total in the county has stabilized. Currently, there are 70 reported cases, but the OHA reported a third death, of an 89-year-old woman who had underlying conditions, early Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 24.
Sidelinger indicated that the numbers showed the recent uptick in the county appeared to be on the verge of slowing down.
Presubmitted questions that were answered by Sidelinger, Dr. Elizabeth Powers, family physician at Winding Waters Community Health Center and chief medical officer at Wallowa Memorial Hospital, and Jenni Word, chief nursing officer at Wallowa Memorial Hospital, hit on a range of topics, including what individuals are to do if they test positive, to if wastewater testing for COVID-19 could be considered in the county to when a potential vaccine could be available in the county.
“Pfizer and Moderna....received data in the last week about how their vaccines are performing in the latest round of clinical trials. It shows that there are no significant safety concerns and they are working well,” Sidelinger said.
While it’s not yet known when a vaccine could be approved or when it would be approved and readily available, he did say work it being done to set up locations in various regions around the state that could meet ultra-cold-storage requirements.
He added health care workers and other essential workers would be the first among those to get a vaccine, and he expects Wallowa County would have access to the first phase.
But, he said, “We don’t know how many doses or when the vaccine will be available....In the meantime, we are working with Winding Waters and Wallowa Memorial Hospital on planning for vaccine distribution.”
Sidelinger said that if someone tests positive, a health care provider and testing location are required to notify the OHA, and that the OHA or a local provider will contact the patient about the next steps.
People who test positive are required to isolate for at least 10 days, and at least until their fever is gone for 24 hours and symptoms are improving, Sidelinger said. Somebody who is in close contact to a known case is to quarantine for 14 days — the maximum length of time the virus could lie dormant before someone shows symptoms.
Powers addressed areas of confusion around what is meant by a close contact — which is 15 minutes in a 24-hour period within 6 feet of a confirmed case.
“In our experience talking to people, the definition of a close contact can be a little bit confusing....It’s 15 minutes of cumulative exposure, which can come in a lot of small increments. And it’s also affected with things like coughing or singing or being in a close space like a car,” she said.
In terms of wastewater testing, which has been used in various locations to detect the presence of COVID-19, Powers said an investigation is ongoing into whether it would prove beneficial to the county.
“One of the things we know for sure is that just because we don’t detect the SARS-COVID virus in the wastewater does not mean that it’s not in the community, so it may or may not be helpful in that sense,” she said. “One of the things we are exploring is a site in Wallowa for this wastewater testing.”
Word noted that presently, the capacity in Wallowa County for testing is high. Individuals who want to get tested, though, need to speak with their primary health care provider to discuss their situation and determine if they can be tested for the virus.
“Right now, we are very fortunate that we have a large capacity,” she said. “We do not have trouble with testing supplies at the moment....We do have the ability and will increase our testing as the need arises.”
Insurance companies, she added, will cover the cost of a COVID test. The Department of Health and Human Services has a program that will help those without insurance cover the cost of their test. Coverage does not include antibody testing.