Dining, it's in tents

A heated tent sits amid the fog outside The Pheasant Blue Collar Bar & Grill in Hermiston on Dec. 3, 2020.

Umatilla County has been moved from the extreme coronavirus risk category to the high risk category after county officials say they appealed to the state on Monday, Feb. 23.

The appeal comes after about 1,400 backlogged COVID-19 tests were reported to the state from local entities late last week, according to the health department. The state reported those new tests on Friday, Feb. 20, showing a spike of 72 new cases. County officials were immediately flooded with calls from concerned residents, according to Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock and Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara.

Halley Maloy, the county’s epidemiologist, sorted through the backlogged tests over the weekend with officials from the health department to determine what cases should be included and what cases should be excluded from the county’s reopening metrics.

Their analysis showed that 1,145 of those tests, accounting for 74 total positive cases, were either from before Feb. 1, when the two-week time frame to determine risk levels began, or from inmates at local prisons. At least one of those cases was from as far back as June 2020.

The backlogged tests came from Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which reported 58 of the cases, and Aegis Sciences Corporation, which reported four cases. Nine cases of inmates at local prisons were also excluded, data from the health department shows. Those cases do not reflect recent counts.

“The way it got reported from the state, which I didn’t like, very much made it seem like we screwed something up here locally,” Fiumara said. “And that was not in fact what happened.”

Fiumara said it is unclear whether the backlog was due to a clog in the system on behalf of the county or state.

In response, county officials submitted an appeal to Gov. Kate Brown’s office on Sunday, Feb. 22, saying the recently reported cases should not be counted and Umatilla County should be lowered to the high risk category.

Brown’s office responded to the appeal in the affirmative later that day, and on Feb. 23 the state announced that Umatilla County would be moved to high risk.

“In the end this is wonderful news for our local businesses and for our schools,” Murdock said in an email. “We won’t be able to get back to full operation, but every step counts. We are particularly excited for our beleaguered restaurants who have taken the brunt of the closures. They won’t be at full capacity but they can at least move toward some inside dining. Having talked to them several times a week, I know how desperate they are to expand their options.”

The county’s move from the extreme risk category to the high risk category becomes effective on Friday, Feb. 26. Since the state started the four-tiered risk categories in December 2020, Umatilla County has been firmly entrenched in the extreme risk category. This is the county’s first move out of the classification.

The change allows for indoor dining at restaurants at 25% of their full capacity, with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart, and no more than two households and six people to a table. Retail establishments remain at 50% capacity. Indoor entertainment establishments and indoor recreation facilities can open at 25% capacity or 50 people total, whatever is smaller.

It also allows faith institutions, funeral homes, mortuaries and cemeteries to operate at limited capacity. Lastly, it allows indoor and outdoor visitation at long-term care facilities and only recommends, rather than requires, that office work be done remotely. Full guidance can be found at coronavirus.oregon.gov/Pages/guidance.aspx.

“Taking this step is incredible news, but we need to continue to follow the protocols if we want to move forward or even stay where we will now be,” Murdock said.

The approval from the governor’s office to discount the cases drops reported cases over two weeks from 231 to 156, according to the health department.

“The numbers get reported because the numbers are what the numbers are,” Fiumara said. “What’s being modified is that (the cases) are not being included in the metrics for risk levels because they don’t tell the story of what happened these past two weeks.”

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