Lamb Weston Heroes

Staff photo by Ben Lonergan, file

A sign outside of Lamb Weston’s Hermiston processing facility thanks the plant’s employees.

As Umatilla County’s COVID-19 numbers continue to grow by leaps and bounds compared to the rest of Oregon, I’m seeing a lot of arguing over how accurate the numbers are, and much less discussion about what we can do to protect people in our community.

Reducing COVID-19’s toll on our community starts with personal responsibility, of course. All the laws and inspections in the world aren’t going to make as much difference as the way individuals in a community are choosing to behave.

I said it in a column two months ago and I will say it again: If you want businesses in your town to be able to continue to operate, if you want schools to be able to open in the fall, if you want churches to stay open, you need to do your part by social distancing, wearing a mask and staying home when sick.

In the time since I first gave that advice in this column, it has been clear that many people in Hermiston have disregarded it. In mid-June, Umatilla County Public Health director Joe Fiumara said the county had traced many new COVID-19 cases to graduation parties. As cases have risen more rapidly, the health department has repeatedly stated that many cases are being traced back to people who infected their co-workers after knowingly showing up to work while sick. And when I went to a local laundromat last week after the state’s mask order was already in effect, not a single other person inside was wearing a mask.

As easy as it is to judge, it is also important to remember that while some people are merely acting selfishly, others are making calculations that not everyone has been forced to make. For someone living paycheck to paycheck in a job with no paid sick leave, waking up with a sore throat may feel like a choice between risking their co-workers’ health and not being able to put food on the table for their children.

That’s not a decision we should be asking anyone to make.

I’ve been encouraged, as I have reported on workplace outbreaks, by how many companies have told me that they are providing paid sick leave not only for people who test positive for COVID-19 but also anyone who was exposed to them, so that they can protect others by quarantining at home.

This is the point of all that contact tracing and testing that has been set up: to stop outbreaks in their tracks by depriving the virus of the opportunity to jump to new hosts.

It is vital that all workplaces in our community adopt generous COVID-19 paid leave policies immediately, along with practices such as allowing people to work from home whenever possible and requiring masks when people are in the same room together.

If workplaces are currently one of the biggest drivers of Umatilla and Morrow counties’ COVID-19 cases, then employers can do more to slow our numbers than anyone else. A paid sick day today can help avoid a complete shutdown tomorrow.

I’m hearing of people who are going to the grocery store or running other errands while they or members of their household have COVID-19, because they don’t know how else to take care of things. If you know someone who is sick or has sick family members, please consider reaching out and asking if there is anything you can drop off on their porch for them.

When it comes to masks, I am also hearing that some people are not wearing one because they do not have access to one, or a family is sharing one or two masks between all of them, meaning not everyone can be masked if they go out together.

Not everyone knows how to sew or has the money to purchase masks. But given how well people rose to the occasion when it was health care workers experiencing the shortage of PPE, I feel confident that Hermiston and surrounding communities can make sure that people who can’t afford a mask will have access to one anyway.

Let’s work together to help keep our communities safe.

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