UPDATE (6:31 p.m. PT) - As coronavirus cases continue to surge in Oregon, Umatilla County has become a major hot spot for the spread of COVID-19.
While Umatilla County makes up for just 2% of Oregon’s population, the Eastern Oregon county accounts for nearly 20% of the state’s newly reported cases in the last week.
Officials announced a staggering 125 new positive coronavirus cases in Umatilla County just over the holiday weekend, followed by 49 more cases on Tuesday. Combined with presumptive cases, county health officials have reported 834 total COVID-19 total cases — a very high number in a county with a population just shy of 78,000. Seven Umatilla County residents have died from the disease.
Umatilla is one of eight counties on a statewide watchlist for coronavirus spread, which health officials have linked to people with minor symptoms that are returning to work as the economy reopens, particularly among agricultural producers.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, potato company Lamb Weston has seen 72 coronavirus cases in a workplace outbreak — the third-largest outbreak in the state.
Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock joined host Crystal Ligori on OPB’s “All Things Considered” to talk about the county’s dramatic increase in cases.
Here are some highlights from their conversation:
Crystal Ligori: Why are we seeing such a significant spike in cases in Umatilla County?
Commissioner George Murdock: I think in part it's primarily because we are a farm economy — we're getting into peak harvest season and we employ thousands and thousands of workers who are both residents of the county, and those coming into the county for the seasonal harvest.
Our tracers are finding that’s where the outbreak is, it’s with the workers. They’re going to work when they’re sick because they don’t have much of an alternative. They don’t have sick leave, they don’t have other options — so they have to go to work.
Ligori: Are the hospitals in your area able to keep up with the increase in cases?
No ... they are basically at capacity. Hospitals don’t just include St. Anthony and Good Shepherd in our county, but over the border in Washington, where we have three or four more hospitals. But all of them are experiencing difficulty — at St. Anthony, they told me that they’re trying to move some patients to Portland because they can’t find places in the Tri-Cities [Washington hospitals], but even that’s becoming a problem.
Editor's Note: An official at St. Anthony Hospital contacted OPB after this story published with the following statement: "St. Anthony Hospital is not at capacity at this time, and is experiencing typical patient volumes. We have a multi-phasic plan ready to implement if and when we see an influx of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. This plan includes the possibility of transferring patients to other hospitals should the need arise."
Ligori: What's been the impact of COVID-19 been on Umatilla County's economy? I know you mentioned the large farm economy in the region.
[The potato company] Lamb Weston is closed at the moment; we’ve got indication that there are other [agricultural producers] who might also have to close down ... which will certainly have a big impact on what we do with our products, where we process them, but [also] the jobs that it offers for people who need to be working and want to be working.
We also have an impact on our restaurants and our retail businesses. With restaurants, it isn’t really COVID-related, but now they’re having concerns about staying open in Phase 2 [of the governor’s reopening plans]. They have tight margins, they have to have a large staff, they have to comply with health guidelines, and they’re at half-capacity. For some of them, it’s just not a formula that works very long economically.
Ligori: How do you balance public safety with that need for agricultural work to continue?
We’ve been trying to reach out to our farmworker community to discuss health concerns and find out ways to protect them. We know in a lot of cases they go to work in vans where they’re in very close contact. They live together in dormitory-like situations, but also in housing with large families. It’s just a formula for disaster.
I think we need to figure out a way to set up some kind of emergency medical facilities and outreach that can be on-site where they’re needed to help these families. If we’re dealing with CARES funding, it’s going to a lot of different programs [right now]. I think our migrant families, our families at risk could well benefit from some sort of safety net so they can stay home.
Ligori: Do you feel like Umatilla County is getting enough support from the state or the federal government?
The federal government sent plenty of money to the state, and I think the state still has funds there to do it ... simply shutting down our restaurants and retail businesses isn’t really going to solve the problem. What we need [n]ow is what we can do in a meaningful way. Not in August, but now, to reach out to the families being impacted.
Ligori: What are you worried about most in your county?
I’m worried about the fact that our [coronavirus] numbers have just exploded. We hired a number of new bilingual tracers [Tuesday], and we’re working on that capacity to not just trace the cases — we pretty much already know where they’re coming from — but ways of reaching out to our communities with a message of what they need to do to keep themselves healthy and safe. Not just for themselves, but for the parents and grandparents. If people who are sick cease to be in contact with one another, we can make significant headway in turning this around.
Hear the full conversation by clicking play on the audio player at the top of this story.