Umatilla County residents hoping to see COVID-19 restrictions lifted after the state’s two-week “freeze” ends on Dec. 3 will instead see a new slate of restrictions — some less restrictive, some more.
On Wednesday, Nov. 25, Gov. Kate Brown announced the state would be moving away from the previous “phase” system of restriction and instead place counties into four categories of risk — extreme, high, moderate and low.
When Brown first discussed the new system on Nov. 25, Umatilla County’s metrics put it in the extreme risk category, while Morrow County fell into the moderate category. However, the governor’s office stated that the Oregon Health Authority would be reevaluating each county right before the new system starts on Dec. 3, and on Dec. 1 the governor's office sent out a new list that moved Morrow County to the "extreme" category as well.
Once the system starts, counties will spend at least two weeks in each category before possibly being moved up or down the list based on factors, such as the number of COVID-19 cases and what percentage of cases contact tracers were able to trace to a known source.
Brown said the restrictions were in response to dwindling hospital beds in the state, in the hopes that no Oregonian will die because a hospital did not have room for them.
“Not everyone dies from COVID-19, that’s true, but trust me, this is not a virus you want to get,” she said. “Even young people’s lives can be devastated by the virus. We continue to learn more about the longterm impacts of the disease — extreme tiredness and fatigue, loss of taste and smell, permanent lung damage.”
During the city of Hermiston’s Nov. 23 city council meeting, Mayor David Drotzmann said he had been in conversation with Brown and other officials about hospital capacity in the state, and was concerned.
During the summer, when Hermiston’s COVID-19 cases were by far the highest of any ZIP code in the state, Good Shepherd Health Care System did not have to deny anyone a hospital bed due to lack of availability.
However, Drotzmann said, when other communities had lower numbers of hospitalizations, hospitals, such as Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, Washington, were able to take transfers from Good Shepherd.
“That’s not an option for us when those beds are full,” he said. “And so even though our numbers are not where they were in July, they’re still increasing, and there are impacts from what is happening in the rest of the state on us.”
According to OHSU, that hospital has accepted 69 total transfer patients from Good Shepherd, St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, Grande Ronde Hospital in La Grande and Saint Alphonsus Hospital in Boise since May.
Dr. David Zonies, the medical director for the intensive care units at OHSU, said at the governor’s press conference that Portland hospitals weren’t turning away patients yet, but it was a concern that was coming.
He said he was also concerned by the fact that he was meeting patients who were in the intensive care unit of OHSU because of COVID-19 but told him they still did not believe the virus exists.
Extreme risk restrictions
Since the state initially placed Umatilla County in the extreme risk category, the county’s COVID-19 cases have continued to rise, making it unlikely the county’s status will be lowered in time for the end of the two-week freeze. In the seven-day period from Nov. 24-30 the county reported 134 new cases and one new death, of a 72-year-old woman who tested positive Nov. 16 and died Nov. 22 at Good Shepherd.
Restrictions under the “extreme risk” level include:
• Gatherings with people outside of your household will be limited to a maximum of six people with a recommended limit of two households.
• Restaurants, bars, and other eating and drinking establishments will be limited to a maximum of 50 people for outdoor dining only, with six or fewer people per table. Takeout is strongly encouraged.
• Indoor recreation, fitness and entertainment establishments, including gyms, will remain closed.
• Outdoor recreation, fitness and entertainment activities, including outdoor gym activities, will be allowed, with a maximum limit of 50 people.
• Retail stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, and indoor and outdoor shopping centers and malls will be limited to a maximum of 50% of capacity, with curbside pickup encouraged.
• Faith institutions, funeral homes, mortuaries, and cemeteries will be limited to a maximum of 25% of capacity or 100 people indoors (whichever is smaller), or 150 people outdoors.
• Office workplaces will be required to utilize remote work to the maximum extent possible, with offices closed to the general public.
• Personal services businesses will be allowed to continue to operate with health and safety measures currently in place.
• Long-term care facilities can allow limited outdoor visitation, following current rules.
Capital Bureau reporter Gary Warner contributed to this report.