Two Eastern Oregon counties made progress in the long road of recovering from the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, Sept. 18.

Gov. Kate Brown announced in a press release that Morrow County was moving into Phase 2 of reopening, and it and Umatilla County were both removed from the state’s COVID-19 watchlist.

“I want to commend county officials and community members in Umatilla and Morrow Counties for stepping up and working together to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Brown stated in the release.

The third time was the charm for Morrow County getting to Phase 2, which had two previous requests denied by the state after being moved back to Phase 1 on July 30.

Indoor and outdoor recreation and entertainment venues, such as movie theaters and pools, are able to reopen in Phase 2, in addition to restaurants and bars being permitted to stay open until 10 p.m. and large gatherings being capped at 50 people.

In order for a county to enter Phase 2 of reopening, it must meet prerequisites set by the state that include six metrics involving trends of hospitalizations, new cases, tracing and testing, in addition to reporting a case rate below 100 cases per 100,000 people.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, Morrow County recorded 15 new cases the week of Sept. 6-12, good for a case rate of 118.3 per 100,000. Though that was its lowest case rate since at least June, Morrow County also recorded a positive test rate of 28.9%, its highest in over a month.

That uptrend in positive test rate also means Morrow County is failing to meet one of the additional six metrics. Morrow County’s positive test rate for COVID-19 hasn’t fallen below 20% since at least the start of July.

While data published by the Oregon Health Authority suggested the county wasn’t eligible for Phase 2, Morrow County pleaded for the state to evaluate its response to the virus and the impacts of reopening more businesses holistically.

“We don’t have a theater. We don’t have a bowling alley. We don’t have a sports venue,” said Morrow County Commissioner Melissa Lindsay. “So from Phase 1 to Phase 2, what really happens?”

Lindsay said the county had that conversation with Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen on Sept. 18 and communicated their belief that any changes from Phase 1 to Phase 2 would have limited impact on the spread of the virus.

“While Morrow County still must make additional progress in reducing its COVID-19 case count to fully meet all metrics for Phase 2, the county also lacks the types of facilities and large venues that are eligible to reopen in Phase 2,” the press release stated.

According to the press release, Morrow County is also being removed from the county watch list along with Umatilla County, which entered Phase 2 of reopening on Sept. 11.

While removal from the watch list has essentially no impact on the county’s operations or response to the virus, Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer called the news a “PR win” for the county.

“It doesn’t do a whole lot other than taking us out of the spotlight of the watch list,” Shafer said.

The watch list is intended to inform state policymakers and the Oregon Health Authority about the spread of COVID-19 in individual counties and assist in prioritizing resources for those counties.

The state uses data on sporadic COVID-19 cases to determine whether a county will be on the watch list, meaning it’s determined by the number and rate of cases that can’t be traced to a known source of transmission.

A county is added to the watch list if it reports more than five sporadic cases and a sporadic case rate that exceeds 50 sporadic cases per 100,000 people during a two-week span.

According to the Oregon Health Authority’s county watch list data, Umatilla County’s two-week sporadic case rate averaged just under 60 cases per 100,000 in the weeks between Aug. 9 and Sept. 5.

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said the county recorded 38 cases that couldn’t be traced to a known source from Aug. 30-Sept. 12, good for a two-week sporadic case rate of 46.8 per 100,000 people.

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