COVID-19 cases in Wasco County are increasing, and the county is categorized as being at “extreme risk” under state guidelines through at least Dec. 14, according to Dr. Mimi McDonell, health officer with North Central Public Health District. Hood River County is also in the extreme category.

In a presentation to the Wasco County Board of Commissioners Dec. 2, McDonell noted weekly COVID-19 case counts had risen steadily in November, increasing from under 20 to over 50 in four weeks. “These cases per week not cumulative — cases are going up,” she said. The county is at “extreme risk” is when case count is over 60 during a two-week period.

McDonald said well over 30 percent of new cases are “sporadic,” with no known source, as opposed to workplace outbreaks. “We have a lot more community spread than we have been seeing,” she said.

In response, health authorities are encouraging residents to be tested for the virus even if they are having mild symptoms. “COVID-19 can have really mild symptoms,” she explained. “We need to keep this from spreading.”

Influenza is also a concern, she added. "There have been five cases of flu in the Columbia Gorge this season,” she said. “Its starting.”

Vaccine Plan

Shellie Campbell, interim director for North Central Public Health District, said the first COVID-19 vaccines may be arriving locally before the end of the year. The vaccines are waiting for approval under an Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a rigorous testing and trial process.

Campbell said Oregon has made the safety of COVID-19 vaccines a top priority and has joined a consortium of western states (Washington, California, Nevada and Colorado) that is reviewing all vaccines for safety before they are made available to the public. 

“If approved, a limited supply will be available in December,” Campbell said. People will need two doses, spaced a few weeks apart. Because the initial supply of first doses will be limited, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends prioritizing two groups: Healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients and residents of long-term care facilities. 

OHA has not yet determined prioritization and will convene a Vaccine Advisory Committee to gain input from community members about how to ensure an equitable approach to distribution. 

McDonell noted “some pretty amazing technology has allowed this (vaccine) to arrive very quickly.” About 30,000 doses coming to Oregon for healthcare workers,” she said, and additional prioritization has not yet been set.

Health District under stress

Campbell told the board the health district has increased some staff, but “we have been stretched pretty thin. We don’t know what our continued funding is going to be. We have head rumors that funding is coming, but we don’t know. So its hard to put on additional staff. That is our challenge.

“We have had staff doing a lot of flex and comp time. We are trying our best to rotate staff through that. We have a minimum staff trained to do the work that needs to be done, so its hard. Our staff is pretty stressed.”

Campbell noted the demands on the district are not going to end soon. “This is not going to go away in the next month or two, we need more staff going forward. We are short on nurses as it is, and vaccine clinics will be needed. There is a lot of logistical and system work that needs to take place, not just in terms of vaccines, but in testing as well.”

She said while some regions have had to dial back contact tracing, the district has not. “We make an effort to do the tracing. But if we leave a message, and someone doesn’t call back, that’s it, we send a letter. We don’t keep trying to call back."

She said their focus is primarily on congregate work facilities and long term care facilities. “We are not in as bad a shape as some of the larger counties.”

McDonell said the virus is spreading “when people gather indoors in groups. Its not happening outdoors, or when people go get a haircut, its not happening on surfaces. With more community spread, you have exponential growth — that is the issue. Now its everywhere.”

Getting tested

The district is asking residents to be tested for the virus even if they are having minor symptoms. “That’s how we keep it from spreading to other people. We really need to do that. And being responsible personally, keeping yourself safe and your family safe.

"The biggest strain is on human resources — there are direct care staffing shortages at hospitals and long term care facilities." 

Personal Protective Equipment

“I don’t see it getting a lot better ... I think its a challenge, McDonell told the board. “MCMC is doing well, the same with long term care facilities. Gloves are a pinch point right now. We will be checking with Wasco County emergency manager about getting more gloves. We are still having shortages at this point.

“The first thing is to care for yourself, physically, mental, emotionally and spiritually,” McDonell said. “One thing that helps us take care of ourselves is taking care of others as well. We can help others by following the safety measures. And also, consider ways to give, maybe donating our holiday travel funds to local food banks. Donate clothing, blankets, food. 

“We need to help others get the safety and shelter that everyone needs. I know it is very dark right now. I know it is a cliche, but although its very dark now there is a sunrise coming. It isn’t here yet, but its coming.”

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