Following mounting pressure from media outlets around Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority last week to provide greater transparency about the state’s positive cases of COVID-19 and hospitals’ capacities to treat a potential surge of patients.
As a result, 10-year age ranges of individuals who test positive and daily totals of available ventilators, hospital beds and personal protective equipment are now being provided at a statewide level by OHA.
But as the less populated, more rural counties of Eastern Oregon gradually identify more cases of COVID-19, public health departments are limiting what demographic information is being provided out of fear of outing the identities of those who have tested positive.
“We want people to know of the elements of danger that surround them,” said Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock. “But we are also bound to protect the privacy of those individuals who test positive.”
After no new cases were found in the county for two weeks, the Umatilla County Public Health Department announced two new positive cases of COVID-19 last week. One is self-isolating at home, while another is currently hospitalized.
On Friday, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said one of this week’s new cases is believed to be connected to a confirmed case in Walla Walla, Wash. The other is believed to have acquired it through community spread, he said.
Otherwise, no information is available about the two individuals’ age, sex, where they reside or any public places they may have visited recently.
“Admittedly, we’ve been pretty restrictive in the information we’ve released,” Fiumara said. “That’s mainly been driven by the heightened feelings around this disease.”
According to Murdock, knowing where an individual who tested positive resides shouldn’t change anything about how people are perceiving the pandemic and responding to it.
“There was a time people were saying, ‘Oh well, that’s happening over in China, I don’t need to worry about that,’” he said. “Just because the virus is known to be in one community doesn’t change the risk or possibility of it spreading to another.”
Fiumara said the county’s demographic data is being pulled into the numbers provided by the OHA statewide and that data may be provided at the county level as case numbers rise.
The Morrow County Public Health Department announced its first case of COVID-19 had been identified in the county on Thursday night, and like Umatilla County, the department said in a press release it doesn’t plan to release any demographic information about the individual.
In Wasco County, health officials have taken a case-by-case approach.
The North Central Public Health District, which serves Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman counties, reported its first case of COVID-19 had been found on Wednesday in a male between the ages of 60-80 who lives in the Oregon Veteran’s Home in The Dalles.
Wasco County’s second case was identified on Thursday, but this time, health officials only said the individual was not linked to the first case and was “receiving excellent care” at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles.
Teri Thalhofer, director of the North Central Public Health District, said they felt it was important to inform the public that the first case was present in a residential facility and included his age to make it clear the individual was a resident and not an employee.
For Thursday’s case, and likely most others that will be identified in the future between the three counties, Thalhofer said privacy risks would likely limit demographic information from being released.
“Sherman and Gilliam, my two smallest counties, there’s only a population of about 1,800 people,” she said. “So even demographic information like age ranges and sex can pretty much identify who it is.”
While concerned with patient privacy, health departments are also being cognizant of stirring unnecessary panic or creating a sense of apathy by releasing exactly where a resident resides.
“We don’t want to say this one area is where it’s happening and have people in another part of the county go, “Oh, OK, then I guess I don’t have to worry about it,” said Lt. Melissa Ross, a spokesperson for the Morrow County Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Management Department.
Just across the state border in Walla Walla County, Wash., officials are embracing a more transparent approach to its COVID-19 reporting.
Last weekend, the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health announced its first two cases had been identified in the county, and released that the first case was found in a man in his 40s, and the second in a woman in her 20s.
On Friday, Walla Walla County announced two new cases had been identified in a woman in her 20s from College Place and in a woman in her 60s from Walla Walla, and said information about where individuals live will now be included when announcing future positive cases.
While it remains restrictive in the information being release, Umatilla County Public Health did release more information this week about COVID-19 testing than was previously available.
The department is now updating its website every weekday with the total number of positive and negative test results received in the county. As of Friday at 12:30 p.m., 106 total tests had been processed in Umatilla County.
For now, health officials are investigating and contacting anybody who may have recently come in close contact with the county’s positive cases.
In the event an individual tests positive after visiting a public location, such as a grocery or department store, Fiumara said Umatilla County may release information asking for people to contact them if they may have been exposed, as they did when the county’s first case had attended a basketball game in Weston shortly before testing positive on March 2.
“In the case of the basketball game, we recognized early on that we wouldn’t be able to find everybody who could have come in contact with them on our own and we needed the public’s help,” he said.
Fiumara said the county’s investigations were getting easier thanks to people being aware of the virus and isolating themselves.
“I think it shows people are following the social distancing guidelines and it’s making a difference,” he said.