There are signs that the oppression of COVID-19 is lifting in this area. At least a little and at least for now, officials said this week.

Oregon Health Authority said Tuesday, Nov. 23, it is lifting the state’s outdoor mask mandate for large public gatherings, starting now.

The state has had some of the most stringent mask mandates in the country. In late August, Gov. Kate Brown re-instituted outdoor masking for outdoor public areas in cases, such as the Pendleton Round-Up, where crowds would be closely gathered, regardless of people’s vaccination status.

As well, Oregon education officials announced that an adequate and stable COVID-19 test kit supply is now on hand for all public and private schools to be able to test students to stay in school, rather than being sent home in all cases of exposure to the virus.

Providence St. Mary Medical Center announced it is easing visitor restrictions, beginning Tuesday, Nov. 23, due to a decline in related infections and hospitalizations, spokesperson Kathleen Obenland said.

Although the newest visitor policy is only slightly less restrictive, the number of visitors allowed does double in most instances in what the hospital is calling Phase II B of the restrictions put into effect when COVID-19 arrived in the area, Obenland said.

No visitors are allowed in COVID-19-positive rooms, as has been the case for the duration of the pandemic, and masking is still mandated in the facility.

Health officials in Umatilla and Walla Walla counties gave reports Monday that case rates are dropping in the area, as are the number of people ill with the disease who need hospitalization.

In Umatilla County, positive test outcomes are dropping very quickly, health Director Joseph Fiumara said, while at the state level there is currently more of a plateau effect.

Last week, the county had 85 cases, “much lower number than we’ve spent most of the pandemic at,” Fuimara told county commissioners.

Umatilla County has had 179 COVID-19 related deaths, including the following reported since Friday, Nov. 19:

  • An 80-year-old woman who tested positive on Sept. 6 and died Nov. 2 at Milton-Freewater Health and Rehabilitation Center.
  • A 91-year-old man who tested positive on Oct. 18 and died Nov. 14 at Desire for Healing in Pendleton.
  • A 67-year-old woman who tested positive on Oct. 25 and died Nov. 16 at Good Shepherd Hospital in Hermiston.
  • A 60 year-old man who tested positive Oct. 30 and died Nov. 15 at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Boise.
  • A 70 year-old woman who died April 29 at a private residence. The death certificate listed COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death.
  • A 65-year-old man who died Oct. 8 at a private residence. The death certificate listed COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death.
  • A 93-year-old man who tested positive Aug. 31 and died Sept. 17 at Willowbrook Terrace in Pendleton.

All the victims had more than one health condition.

In Walla Walla County, public health Director Dr. Daniel Kaminsky noted that while virus transmission rates have increased by 16% around much of the country, Washington state — with a relatively high vaccination rate — is showing some decline in case numbers and that it is expected to continue on a downward slope.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 are also dropping here.

Those higher rates elsewhere are most likely attributed to low community vaccination rates and people moving indoors during winter weather, Kaminsky said.

In both counties, vaccination rates are creeping up, largely through those who have already been vaccinated seeking booster doses, Fiumara and Kaminsky said.

Kaminsky added that information around the vaccines is evolving and that no one can yet predict if more booster doses will be needed in the future.

Numbers for Walla Walla County, Nov. 22:

  • 30 new cases since Saturday, Nov. 20.
  • 211 active cases.
  • Three residents hospitalized.
  • 109 deaths.
  • 9,322 total cases.

Numbers for Umatilla County, Nov. 23:

  • 15 new cases.
  • 179 deaths.
  • 15,071 total cases.

Numbers for Columbia County, Nov. 22:

Four active cases.

  • Nine deaths total.
  • 382 total cases, 43 total hospitalizations.
  • Some information for Columbia County is from Washington State Department of Health.

    Washington State Department of Health, Nov. 22:

    • 674,098 total cases.
    • 9,139 deaths.

    Oregon Health Authority, Nov. 15:

    • 385,790 total cases.
    • 5.017 deaths total.

    Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 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.

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