Think Out Loud

Gov. Kate Brown sends Umatilla County back to baseline status

By Allison Frost (OPB) and Donald Orr (OPB)
Aug. 4, 2020 2:59 p.m. Updated: Aug. 5, 2020 12:27 a.m.

BROADCAST: Tuesday, Aug. 4

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr

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Umatilla County is experiencing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Oregon.

Since the beginning of July, the county has registered more than 17 cases per 1,000 people. Oregon State University researchers believe infections could be significantly higher in certain areas — data suggests nearly 17% of Hermiston’s population is infected — following the university’s door-to-door testing period at the end of July. That’s 169 infections per 1,000 people in the city.

Gov. Kate Brown halted reopening the county July 31, sending it back to what’s known as the “baseline” status. Residents are encouraged to quarantine at home; public gatherings are limited to 25 people; nonessential businesses must close for at least three weeks and restaurants must return to takeout only.

The county could move back to Phase 1 after 21 days if infection rates drop.

Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock spoke with OPB’s “Think Out Loud” about how the community is dealing with the setback and how it’s approaching the political and public health challenges to get COVID-19 cases down. Murdock said that while he didn’t expect the county to make a full return to baseline status, he realized officials had to make significant changes in order to address the surge in cases.

“We still are only a small portion of Oregon’s population, but our numbers are just disproportionate,” Murdock said.

A mostly conservative county, some residents have been resistant to restrictions Brown set in order to curb the infection rate. Some residents requested county commissioners pass a resolution to ignore the governor’s measures entirely. But Murdock said the commission is taking the latest setback seriously.

“We just won’t play games with the health and safety of our residents,” Murdock said. “While I understand the frustration of people here [who are] not happy we’re at baseline, we aren’t going to pass any kind of resolution in opposition to the order.”

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Umatilla County is primarily a farm economy, employing thousands of workers who are either residents of the county, or those coming in for the seasonal harvest. As county cases started to surge, many farmworkers had been going to work sick due to a lack of leave time.

“These are people that are used to going to work every day, sick or not. They’re low-income, and they just can’t afford to miss work,” Murdock said.

Brown announced the launch of new financial assistance programs Saturday, offering aid to agricultural workers who must self-quarantine due to coronavirus. The provision gives up to two weeks of sick leave to farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status.

“We’re really targeting our message at [workers], that they don’t have to come to work when they’re sick,” Murdock said.

Beyond agricultural workers, Murdock recognizes the county’s 80,000 residents must coalesce behind the latest health guidance in order to get back to Phase 2, the highest phase of reopening the county reached before the surge in cases.

“It’s totally dependent on the fact that people in our county are going to have to wear masks. They’re going to have to stay home when they’re sick,” Murdock said.

“It’s up to us to get ourselves out of this.”

To listen to the entire conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.

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