COVID concerns

Second grader Emily Ramos Corral walks with her class along the hallway at McNary Heights Elementary School in Umatilla on Monday, May 16, 2022. After Covid case numbers fell, fewer of Emily's classmates and teachers wore masks, but case numbers are inching back up.

PENDLETON — Oregon’s COVID-19 case rate is rising again, and that has state health and education officials worried.

The state issued a health advisory Friday, May 13, effective through Aug. 31, recommending that schools require face masks again in counties where the federally-defined risk level is high. No Oregon counties have reached this level yet, but six are classified as medium. These six, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, are Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Columbia, Benton and Deschutes counties.

The other 30 counties in the state, including Umatilla and Morrow counties, are low, according to federal ratings, which are based on hospitalization data.

The state’s warning comes amid rising coronavirus cases, a previously predicted bump brought on by the highly infectious omicron BA.2 subvariant and the lifting of mask restrictions. Hospitalizations are rising, too, and are predicted to peak at around 320 within about a month.

According to OHA data, pediatric COVID-19 cases have been increasing since the middle of March, similar to cases statewide. Hospitalizations remain low but are on the rise. Health officials have called it “a mild virus” in most cases.

The advisory also recommends that schools monitor for high absentee rates and notify their local public health authority if absences reach a certain level, or if they see an “unusual spread of disease.”

ODE said schools leaders should tell their county health officials if absences exceed certain benchmarks, such as if absences reach 30% or more, with at least 10 students or staff absent at the school level, and if classroom absences reach 20% or more, with at least three students or staff absent.

Schools have learned from past 2 years

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said the state advisory was “a heads up that COVID is creeping up in some Oregon counties. It is a bit in our area as well.”

Mulvihill pointed out local school districts now have much more experience with infectious disease outbreaks than in early 2020.

“Districts can react rapidly and get teed up to plan mitigation efforts,” he said. “We can fall back on policies and procedures which we know will work, and ramp them up quickly.”

He said a lot of positives came out of the experience in the past two years.

“We’re now used to working closely with Umatilla County Public Health to keep an eye on what’s going on. We’re better prepared than in the past,” Mulvihill said. “We don’t jump to any conclusions based on an advisory from the state, whether for COVID or the flu.”

Mulvihill noted the county is diverse. During pandemic surges, masking, distancing and online learning mandates were statewide, so every district in Umatilla County had to comply.

“Ukiah and Hermiston might not both need to follow the same protocols,” he said. “Each district can now monitor what’s happening locally and adjust accordingly, rather than follow state or county mandates.”

Local schools will do all they can, he said, to keep doors open for students.

“Right now our emphasis is on finishing the year, having graduations, track meets and all the events that our kids have so sorely missed,” he said. “It has been tough on the kids.”

Some precautions still in place

Masks are optional in the Umatilla School District, Superintendent Heidi Sipe reported.

She referred to a March 11 district press release that asks for “respect for others” when it comes to mask wearing, and an additional learning guide states social distancing remains in effect, as well as regular cleaning and sanitizing of high-touch areas and free COVID-19 testing is available at the school for symptomatic students with a parent’s permission.

Sipe said the district tracks cases weekly. On May 16, she said the district’s last case was April 22.

Dirk Dirksen, Morrow County School District superintendent, said COVID-19 worries have decreased along with concern. He said there have been no reported cases in Morrow County schools in at least a month and maybe only one or two since February.

“Knock on wood,” he said, adding he hopes cases do not reemerge.

As for protocols, he said schools require adults to sign in at an office upon arriving at a school. At that time, they have to commit that they do not have COVID-19 or symptoms.

“We also would ask parents to keep kids at home with any COVID symptoms,” he said, and schools send students home if they have symptoms.

Dirksen said schools are equipped with COVID-19 tests from the state of Oregon and masks are optional for students and staff, both on school grounds and in buses.

He said he has kept an eye on COVID-19 numbers in the district. In recent months, he said, cases are declining throughout Morrow County. The superintendent said it is possible case numbers are higher than what is reported in the school district and throughout the county.

“When kids are home with the flu, we don’t call them up and tell them they have to call the health department,” he said.

Jake Bacon, Hermiston School District assistant superintendent, said concern about COVID-19 has drastically reduced, and contact tracing is a thing of the past. Masks in his district are optional, for both staff and students. This remains the situation both on school grounds and on buses.

There was a COVID-19 case last week, he said, but a lot is unknown as reporting is not mandatory. The district still has recommendations, though.

“An individual who tests positive, they should isolate for five days,” he said. After five days, and after 24 hours of being fever free, they should wear masks for days six through 10, he said.

Bacon said cleanings and sterilizations have decreased in recent weeks, but schools still are wiping down tabletops and promoting hand washing.

The Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education also reminded schools that students or staff with COVID-like symptoms have to stay home, and asked families to not send their sick children to school and to seek a test and, if the children are eligible, to get them vaccinated.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Elizabeth Miller and The Oregonian reporter Fedor Zarkhin contributed to this report.

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