COVID-19 surges in rural Oregon despite vaccine availability

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
April 17, 2021 1 p.m. Updated: April 17, 2021 4:51 p.m.

Eastern Oregon’s Grant County has only 7,300 people, but health officials report some of their highest daily case counts since the pandemic began, as the majority of residents decline vaccination.

Prairie City, Oregon, June 11, 2020.

Prairie City, Oregon, June 11, 2020.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Since March, three people from Grant County have died due to complications from COVID-19, according to local health officials. Two weeks into April, the county returned more positive test results than in any other month of the pandemic.


“The virus is not playing by the rules anymore,” said Grant County Public Health Administrator Kimberly Lindsay. “It’s not discriminating based upon age. Younger people, including youth, are becoming infected. We’re seeing fewer asymptomatic individuals.”

Lindsay is waiting on lab test results to learn if a more contagious variant is spreading in Eastern Oregon.

“If this isn’t a variant, I think it’s a strong strain of COVID-19, and we are seeing higher transmission rates,” Lindsay said.

A variant known as B.1.1.7 is moving fast, according to Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen.


“It’s gaining traction. Oregonians should assume that if not now, then very soon, the COVID that they are facing is much more contagious than what we have been facing,” he said.

Grant County has a surplus of vaccines, which are available to “pretty much everybody” over 18, Lindsay said. But, only around 29% of the population is vaccinated, according to recent Oregon Health Authority data.

Lindsay said she hears a variety of reasons from those who refuse the shots, like worries about any unknown long-term effects.

“And then, you have things that are over on the other end of the spectrum that are harder for folks to work through, such as, ‘The government is trying to control us,’” Lindsay said.

Grant County Health Department Manager Jessica Winegar said conspiracy theories abound, and that some locals “don’t believe this is real.”

Some of the people to test positive in recent weeks fall in that category, Lindsay said, while others were social distancing, or were only exposed to a known case for a couple of minutes.

Lindsay and Winegar described working very long days trying to test, trace and vaccinate as many people as they can with a small staff.

“We’ve all had our moments where we just cried,” Lindsay said.