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Umatilla County’s COVID-19 struggles continue as statewide cases spike again

From a public health standpoint, the COVID-19 numbers in Umatilla County look especially bad.

Umatilla has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, and hospitalizations have been increasing as the entire state deals with another spike in COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority reported over 1,500 new confirmed and presumptive cases. That’s a big increase from a week ago, when daily numbers lingered around 900. And it’s the most daily cases reported since early January.

All that means even more challenges for public health officials in Umatilla County, which has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases.

“Last week we identified 472 cases, which was the highest we’ve seen since the start of this pandemic,” Joseph Fiumara, the county public health director, told OPB’s Think Out Loud on Tuesday. “This is higher than we’ve seen in either of our previous surges so far.”

Statewide, coronavirus-related hospitalizations increased to 379 people on Tuesday, 39 more than the previous day. Some hospital officials, including those at Oregon Health & Science University, said they are postponing some surgeries that are not urgent.

Meanwhile, Washington reports a very similar daily-case rate increase, as well as fears of hospital-bed shortages.

The Washington Department of Health said Tuesday that hospital occupancy is at the highest levels seen to date this year, with more than 600 people hospitalized with COVID-19, an increase of more than 20% from last week.

Officials say that more than 94% of all recent cases, deaths, and hospitalizations in Washingtonians 12 years of age and older involve people who have not been fully vaccinated.

Fiumara also worries about hospitalization numbers in Umatilla County as beds fill up. He said that on Monday only three intensive care unit beds were available in regional hospitals. The local hospital in Pendleton has resorted to transferring patients, and even that was a challenge.

“We watch these numbers, and the number of beds available drops, and the number of folks who are hospitalized for COVID goes up,” Fiumara said.

In Umatilla County, a pattern has emerged as to who is getting sick: “Most of our cases are happening to folks in their 20s, and our least vaccinated age group in the county are also the folks in their 20s,” Fiumara said.

In Oregon, around 90% of COVID cases have been among unvaccinated people. The same was true in Umatilla County until last week, when the number of so-called breakthrough cases among vaccinated people rose.

“Out of the 472 cases, it appears 85% of them are unvaccinated,” Fiumara said.

The state and the county have both recommended that people once again wear masks in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Despite pressure from the state, Umatilla County has not put a mask mandate in place.

“What we do think is there will be less pushback on the recommendation than the mandate,” Fiumara said. “And we’re hoping that that will come with more compliance than if we were to put a mandate in place. "

He also said the county has no way to enforce a mandate. Instead, the county has been working to make vaccinations available at the upcoming county fair and parade.

“We’re continuing to double down on our messaging, our advertisements we’re making,” Fiumara said. “We’re doing our best to make vaccinations available everywhere.”

Fiumara says there is a flicker of hope for the county’s vaccination rate.

“Last week ... was the second week in a row that we actually saw an increase in vaccination rates across the county,” Fiumara said. “That’s a good thing. It’s disappointing that it takes the hospitals filling up and folks seeing loved ones pass away for some of those decisions to push across the line. Every individual who does get vaccinated reduces the chances of additional variants, reduces the chances of additional spread and severely reduces the chances of further death.”

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting