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County health officials lay out COVID-19 situation in the Valley

  • Updated
  • 4 min to read

Social gatherings and workplace spread are of primary concern among public health officials in both Walla Walla and Umatilla counties who updated their commissioners on local COVID-19 situations Monday.

With 1,657 residents in Umatilla County confirmed to have had the coronavirus, including 132 people since mid-day Friday, health chief Joseph Fiumara told commissioners John Shafer, George Murdock and Bill Elfering that by the end of last week, reports were coming in all day long.

The county now has 315 people with active cases of the disease, including 12 in the hospital, and another 100 people exposed to the coronavirus who are showing symptoms. Sixteen residents have died with the disease.

Walla Walla County cases

In Walla Walla County, Department of Community Health head Meghan DeBolt told county commissioners Todd Kimball and Greg Tompkins on Monday that her staff has also been busy as the COVID-19 count rose over the weekend.

The current transmission trend continues to still be among household members, DeBolt said, noting the county does offer a location for people who cannot isolate from their families due to the housing setup. So far no one has accepted her department’s offer of the site, she said.

DeBolt pointed to social gatherings and worksites such as Smith Frozen Foods Inc., in Weston, and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, both of which attract Walla Walla County residents as workers, as adding to the increase in cases.

As of 4:40 p.m. Monday, the county had tallied 362 people who have tested positive for the disease since the pandemic hit here, 232 of those with Walla Walla addresses and 51 from College Place.

There are now 106 active cases of the disease, including 13 people identified Saturday, 10 Sunday and seven Monday, officials said.

DeBolt said her department is also noticing an increase of severity in the symptoms of the coronavirus, with more people being admitted to Providence St. Mary Medical Center, although not all of the 10 COVID-19 patients currently in the hospital are Walla Walla County residents, she said.

St. Mary has 15 rooms equipped to handle COVID-19 patients, DeBolt explained, noting the hospital has its Southgate Medical Center ready for surge overflow, but the hope is to not need that space.

Also of concern is the number of positive cases from testing — the hoped-for rate is 2%, but the county is experiencing a positive-results rate of 10.3%. Among those, a disproportionate number of people are Latino, she told commissioners.

“So we’re continuing to do outreach with community partners,” and employers such as Tyson Fresh Meats in Wallula and FirstFruits Farms LLC in Prescott to make sure the educational information is reaching that community, Debolt said.

The health director also noted that about a quarter of visitors coming to Walla Walla are not realizing the county is not yet in Phase 3.

“They’re not understanding we’re not really open,” DeBolt said, listing restrictions on wineries and tasting rooms. Also tourists seem to be oblivious that the statewide mask mandate stretches even to Walla Walla.

City of Walla Walla staff has reached out to discuss adding more outside dining downtown, which will mean putting a person in charge of cleaning and watching over the area, DeBolt said.

She also asked commissioners to approve covering salaries and insurance benefits for COVID-19 case contact investigators, noting it is hard when her office has to do so piecemeal and that the salaries are covered by state grant money.

Across the state line

In Umatilla County, Fiumara told county commissioners that Oregon Health Authority has issued some changes in COVID-19 rules, including that people who were in the hospital and/or live in a congregate setting must now isolate for 20 days instead of 14, and that people can return to work 24 hours after symptoms of the virus end rather than 72 hours.

The county’s health officer, Dr. Jonathan Hitzman, said the state has also made changes around the essential workers label; if Hitzman gives the approval, health care workers could go to work while having COVID-19, since they are surrounded by the disease, he said.

The idea is to protect health care settings from employee shortages, Hitzman said, but since he sees Umatilla County hospitals still able to schedule elective surgeries, he doesn’t anticipate such a shortage at this time.

Fiumara said his department is adding staff, which is now about double the usual 25 people, but Oregon Health Authority’s changing demands are still hard to keep pace with, he told the commissioners in today’s virtual meeting.

“Every time I turn around, there is a new process that we have to train on, and that pulls staff away … OHA expects us to run testing, and even before this, I didn’t have capacity. They are pushing for more testing events … I am not anti-testing, i just don’t have staff for it.”

Fiumara said the state’s partnership with community organizations to help reach vulnerable populations — such as English learners, people without homes, immigrant and refugee communities, farm workers, people living with mental illness and others — means well, but it risks robbing county health departments of funding to provide the same services, such as testing, resources and contact tracing.

And it’s not apples to apples, he explained.

“Contact tracing at the health department is a full investigation, but at a (community-based organization), it is just a follow up with people who have been exposed to check on their symptoms. And if they become sick, they have to refer them back to the health department.”

The coordination with multiple organizations all trying to do the same work with the same state dollars is complicated, he said.

Public health workers have requested that the state pay for 10 more people do to contact tracing. These are the folks who work backward to figure out who might be at risk of COVID-19 from exposure to someone with a positive test result.

He’ll need them, Fiumara said, noting that with organizations hosting more testing events, the numbers will climb, and his department is currently struggling to begin contact tracing within the 24 hour mark of a positive test result.

In the meantime, Oregon health officials have taken point on the large outbreak of the virus at the Lamb Weston potato processing plant in Hermiston, which most recently reported 142 employees diagnosed with the illness, Fiumara told commissioners.

He asked commissioners to continue to put pressure on Gov. Kate Brown’s office for help in responding to outbreaks of COVID-19 in the county.

The biggest issue here and across the state continues to be people going to work when they have symptoms of the disease, Fiumara said.

Most of those businesses can still operate if Umatilla County gets pushed back into more restrictions by Brown over case numbers, he said.

“Going back to Phase 1 won’t change that.”

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.