Umatilla County is establishing a center to answer calls and coordinate COVID-19 investigations in its quest to begin reopening local businesses by May 15, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said Tuesday.
“I don’t want to get to the 15th and say, ‘Oops, the county wasn’t prepared,” Murdock said.
The center is being set up this week on the third floor of the Umatilla County Courthouse in Pendleton, Murdock said, and the county will be hiring “probably three to six people” to assist current county health staff to trace contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19.
The courthouse is being utilized to house the additional staff and ensure the health department staff can maintain adequate social distancing.
“We need to have the capacity to trace seven days a week,” he said. “We don’t want to put more people in our health department and put county employees at risk.”
The board of commissioners submitted its version of a multiphase plan to gradually lift some restrictions starting May 15 to Gov. Kate Brown last week. Brown and the state have presented their own framework with criteria for reopening, which Umatilla County must meet in order to follow through with its plan.
The state’s criteria concerns hospitalizations due to the virus, personal protective equipment stocks, and the local capacity to track, monitor and respond to future infections and potential surges.
The state said last week it plans on hiring an additional 600 people to assist with contact tracing in order to more effectively monitor the virus' spread when businesses begin reopening. But as the state works to hire and train those individuals, Murdock said the county felt the need to be proactive in making a plan of their own.
“The state continues to say it's their plan to hire 600 new tracers,” Murdock said. “But like a lot of this, we haven’t seen those 600 tracers.”
Umatilla County’s current case totals surged over the past week and reached 70 on Monday, putting the county at a near statistical tie with Washington County for the third most confirmed cases per 100,000 population in the state. Of the 70 cases, 42 are considered active and 27 are considered recovered. One death has been reported in the county.
Though the confirmed case numbers are rising, Murdock highlighted that only one resident is currently hospitalized with COVID-19. And after a video call with Brown and the other Eastern Oregon county commissioners last Friday, Umatilla County remains confident that it's on track to open within the next 10 days.
“We have been told that we will get our formal application this week and we plan to have it in the governor’s hands by Friday,” Murdock wrote in a message to local public officials Tuesday. “ Last Friday she told us it looked like our plan was in order and that May 15 is realistic.”