Wasco County reported on 10 cases of COVID-19 in the past two-week reporting period, and the state risk level map shows all of central Oregon, from the Columbia River to California, in the “green” or lower risk category. “We are crushing it here in central Oregon,” said Mimi McDonell, health officer for the North Central Public Health District, which serves Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties.

McDonnell noted cases remain down statewide and nationally as well, although numbers are no longer declining. “Things have been kind of steady in March. We would like that curve to go down, not just stay flat.” She noted that although case counts generally are well below the winter peak, they remain close to the numbers reported during the summer surge. “The Americas and Europe are the hot spots,” she noted.

As vaccines continue to be administered in the region, McDonell noted that Center for Disease Control guidelines suggested those who are fully vaccinated can, two weeks after receiving their final shot, gather with other vaccinated people without wearing masks. “It’s okay to gather in family groups, with one other household, without masks, unless an individual member of one of those households is at high risk and not vaccinated.

“We want to keep very low risk. We know the vaccine is preventing transmission, but we don’t know exactly how much yet,” she explained.

She added that vaccine eligibility for adults with underlining health conditions, food processing workers and related groups will begin March 29 in Oregon, and for front line workers no later than May 1.

Vaccinations continue

As of March 13, 9,619 vaccine doses had been administered within the three county area. On average, 21 percent of the population in the district has been vaccinated, including almost half of those 65 and older. In addition to clinics and vaccine sights, visiting health and hospice staff are vaccinating home-bound individuals, McDonell said.

The full closure of a portion of Scenic Drive in The Dalles that began Monday, March 22, is west of the Columbia Gorge Community College entrance, but scheduled invitation-only vaccine clinics at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center, located on the CGCC campus, will continue.

The section of Scenic Drive will be closed through March 29, for sanitary sewer work.

The readiness center is still accessible from the east. Open routes to the readiness center include taking Kelly Avenue to Scenic Drive, or going up Jefferson Street to Scenic Drive.

Currently the district receives 500 vaccine doses each week, and the Oregon Health Authority is talking about an increase of vaccine. “We think maybe an additional 500 doses per week,” she said. The district receives word on Wednesday of each week how many doses they will receive for the coming week.

The district encourages people in groups 6 and 7, which includes adults 45 to 64 with one or more specific underlying conditions and a variety of high risk and frontline workers, to sign up with the district now. “It’s less of a burden on the system if you are already signed up,” she explained. “We want everyone lined up and ready.” Those who can’t sign up online are encouraged to call the district at 541-506-2600. Signups can also be made at www.ncphd.org or wascoshermangilliamcovid-19.com. The district is also on Facebook.

McDonell said that as more vaccine is received, it will be pushed out to local pharmacies as well as clinics. Workplace vaccine events are planned, and large vaccine events will continue. “As more get vaccinated, and large clinic demand drops, we will end up working with primary care providers and the health department on an ongoing basis,” she added. Local pharmacies currently receiving doses include Safeway and Bi-Mart, and statewide some Walmarts and Walgreens. Availability can be checked at company sites online.

The health department is starting now to work with growers and others as the harvest and growing season, approaches to address “all the safety issues that come up,” McDonell said.

When asked what has been learned from the pandemic response in 2020, and what can be done to avoid some of the worst outcomes, McDonell said a lot has been learned. “We need to keep the science community (focused on pandemic response) funded, that was cut. Those programs are really important. I think the U.S. could have done a better job looking at other countries, and seeing what worked, like masks. We should have learned from these other countries.”

She added that communicating best practices and outcomes during a pandemic was also critical. “I think trying to meet people where they are, and bring them forward, is important. We need to speak to what is important in people’s lives, and be open to understanding them. Health leaders need a lot more humility.”

Local control

Scott Hege, chair of the Wasco County Board of Commissioners, also asked about a push in eastern Oregon for the governor and the Oregon Health Authority to shift the pandemic response back to local control. “Is local public health able to take local control of the situation?” he asked.

“Would I like some more local control? Yes. But we rely on the state for a lot of guidance, we don’t have the knowledge and resources that the state has. We don’t have the experts, we rely on the states for that,” she said.