In weekly updates to county commissioners on Monday, May 17, area health officials laid out their current COVID-19 concerns and challenges.

Walla Walla County’s public health officer, Dr. Daniel Kaminsky, told his board of commissioners that last week’s lifting of federal and state masking requirements was a “little bombshell that caused a lot of confusion.”

Kaminsky, like other public health directors around the state, is waiting for concrete guidelines from Washington’s Department of Health with information that can be provided to the community about what masking will look like going forward, he said.

Meanwhile, mobile vaccination clinics led by Department of Community Health staff at area schools and agricultural sites have been successful, Kaminsky said.

“We’re happy to go wherever people want it.”

In Walla Walla County, about 24,000 residents are fully vaccinated, representing about 40% of the population eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Kaminsky said.

Numbers for Walla Walla County, May 11-17:

  • Total COVID-19 cases rose by 24, from 5,087 on May 11 to 5,111 on Monday, May 17.
  • Active cases on Monday totaled 54, down from 75 on May 11; two people are hospitalized.
  • The local death toll remained at 65 people.
  • 51,657 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given.

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joseph Fiumara told his commissioners that he is hearing from Oregon Health Authority officials rules about mask wearing in public being drafted.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday, May 13, that the state will immediately follow guidance issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for lifting mask and distancing requirements for fully vaccinated people.

Brown said then that means fully vaccinated Oregonians no longer need to wear masks or stay 6 feet apart in most public spaces.

Fiumara said it was irresponsible of the governor to make that statement without having Oregon-specific guidance in place.

At this moment, it looks like businesses are going to be required to ask for proof of full COVID-19 vaccination from customers who don’t want to wear a mask, he said.

If a place of business lacks the ability to check vaccination cards, masks will be required for all customers, Fiumara said, noting it will be much easier for businesses to keep mask rules in place than to check vaccination verification.

Health care and some other facilities will not be able to allow people to be mask free, he added.

“Meaning that even with (Oregon’s) policy, my office will still have to mask.”

While the CDC offers scientific guidance on this and other issues, each state government decides how to use that information, public health officer Dr. Jonathan Hitzman told commissioners.

Under her pandemic emergency orders, Gov. Kate Brown continues to have the authority to decide masking requirements, he said.

Board chairman George Murdock said in a weekly newsletter that all of the public health vaccination appointments for this week are filled, mostly with youth who are newly eligible for the shots.

“While we have no formal survey, what I’m hearing from young people is that they are deciding to get the shots to hedge their bets as they hear rumors about being able to move more freely and attend more events if they have the shot,” Murdock said.

“Those involved in school sports anticipate playing in the fall without masks if they have had the shot. They also know it takes six weeks with most shots to get to the other side, and they don’t want to be caught off guard. Hopefully more adults will join them as a path to limited mask rules.”

Murdock and other commissioners said Umatilla County is only about 35% vaccinated, a long way from the 65% Brown has said she wants to see.

One specific challenge continues to haunt local health officials — how to get the numbers for county residents who have been vaccinated elsewhere, such as in Walla Walla, Tri-Cities or at the Confederation Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s clinic.

Numbers for Umatilla County, May 11-17:

  • Total COVID-19 cases rose by 70, from 8,165 on May 11 to 8,235 on Monday, May 17; there are no current hospitalizations.
  • The death toll remains at 84 people.
  • 20,854 county residents are vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine: 1,989 in Milton-Freewater, 332 in Athena and 228 in Weston.

In Columbia County, COVID-19 counts remain static:

  • 119 total cases, adjusted down from 120.
  • Four deaths, adjusted down from five, according to Washington’s Department of Health.
  • 2,985 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered.

On Monday, May 17, state health agencies reported the following for the day.

  • 589 new cases, 423,382 total.
  • 18 new deaths, 5,640 total.
  • 310 new cases of COVID-19, 195,882 total cases.
  • Three new deaths, 2,590 total.

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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.