Union County in eastern Oregon is now battling the single largest outbreak of COVID-19 yet in Oregon, according to state public health officials.
The outbreak has spread among the congregation of the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City, just east of La Grande. Of 365 church members tested, 236 returned positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist.
Jeanne suggested that the timeline of the outbreak — with so many people testing positive simultaneously — indicated that the primary transmission likely occurred between church members and not as part of broader community spread.
“It could have been one service or one event that was responsible for the majority of transmissions,” Jeanne said. “It’s a little early to tell.”
Local public health officials have offered a somewhat different explanation, downplaying the role of the church in the transmission of cases.
According to the La Grande Observer newspaper, the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church began holding in-person worship services and other events in April and May. Videos posted to Facebook that have since been taken down showed congregants standing close together, not wearing masks, singing and praying.
Jeanne said the people infected with the virus range from children to the elderly and include people with a relatively diverse group of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
To date, five people have been hospitalized in the outbreak.
Union County, west of the Wallowa Mountains, has a population of about 25,000 people. It now has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections of anywhere in the state: roughly nine cases for every 1,000 people.
The county had entered Phase 2 of Gov. Kate Brown’s framework for reopening, but it’s now reeling. La Grande Mayor Steve Clements said after three months and almost no cases, the community — including himself — began to get complacent about the risk posed by the coronavirus.
“We were looking forward, as a community, to a summer to get out and about, back into restaurants, somewhat more normal life,” Clements said. “That has been pulled out from under us.”
Clements estimates that a relatively small percentage of the local population was wearing masks in public.
“They got used to the belief that the virus wasn’t going to get us here. Even though I wore a mask, I was very relaxed about this whole thing,” he said.
But the mayor’s feeling has changed over the last few days.
“I’m scared. I’m concerned for my community. I’m concerned for my family, my friends. I feel helpless sometimes,” he said.
Clements said he’s concerned about whether there’s a plan to get food and financial aid to families that need to quarantine to keep the virus from spreading. Complicating that effort, he said Union County has relatively few social service organizations and nonprofits, so churches often fill that role.
The mayor is urging people to put their politics aside and come together as a community to try to limit the spread of the virus.
Last Thursday, two Union County commissioners attended a meeting of rural county commissioners interested in fighting coronavirus closures ordered by Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat from Portland.
This week, the state sent two Oregon Health Authority staffers to Union County to assist with the response, along with eight state public health workers who will assist remotely with contact tracing.