LA GRANDE — Union County is in the midst of an explosion of COVID-19.

The Center for Human Development on Monday afternoon announced 99 new cases. The spike puts the county at 123 cases — 121 confirmed and two presumptive — and moves Union County to the top of the state in cases per capita.

The center in a press release stated 365 tests were conducted over the weekend, and the 99 new cases are what has been “identified so far.”

“This announcement raises a lot of different feelings,” Carrie Brogoitti, public health administrator at the center, said in the press release. “For me, it raises concern. For others it may raise fear, anxiety, anger, uncertainty and even skepticism. All of those emotions make sense when we have a new disease. I think we all care about our community. I hope that, as a community, we come together to protect each other.”

Union County as of a week ago had just six confirmed cases of COVID-19, but added single cases Tuesday and Wednesday, then had five more cases Thursday. The county sat at 22 after Sunday.

All but five of the cases are considered active. To date, nobody in Union County has died from COVID-19.

Outbreak involves local church, more

The press release stated that several of the cases are associated with Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, Island City, which recently hosted a testing clinic.

“Local public health officials expressed appreciation to the congregation for hosting testing onsite,” according to the press release, “and underscored that the results confirm the presence of COVID-19 in the community.”

The church held services in April and May, despite Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders limiting gatherings, and recently held a wedding and a graduation ceremony with more than 100 people at each event.

Churches throughout Union County adapted services to meet the requirements of the executive order, such as shifting to hold sermons online. The Lighthouse Church also changed its format — moving services outside.

According to posts on the Lighthouse Church’s Facebook page, members of the church began meeting outside for service April 12 with a “drive-up” service where people remained in or near their cars while the worship team and church leaders held the service. This model, with additional livestreams of the service, became a staple for the church during Phase 1 of reopening.

But the church’s videos of services in April and the first half of May show dozens of parishioners gathered in the church parking lot around a central stage, ignoring the restriction on crowd sizes.

The video from the April 26 services shows church leaders and members engaged in the practice of the laying on of hands during prayer. Participants were close enough to rub shoulders and no one was wearing face coverings. The video of the May 6 services shows churchgoers side by side. Again, no one in the videos appear to be wearing face masks. During Mother’s Day, May 10, a pastor invited all the mother’s in the audience to come forth for recognition. Numerous women lined up next to one another, only 2 or 3 feet apart at the most, and once more, no one wore a mask.

The church announced on its Facebook page Saturday that it canceled Sunday’s service “due to recent outbreaks.” The Observer made numerous attempts Monday to contact the church, but there was no response.

Union County did not enter Phase 1 of reopening until May 15, and even then there were restrictions on crowd sizes. Brogoitti noted the cases are not coming from just one source but warned that large gatherings can pose a risk in spreading the virus.

“Many of the recent positive cases are touching various areas of our community and are not confined to one location,” she said.

Two weeks ago Tuesday, hundreds of locals protested for racial equity in downtown La Grande. While many in the throng wore facial coverings, they did not remain 6 feet apart from one another, and the protest lasted several hours.

During a press call Monday afternoon with the Oregon Health Authority, Dr. Paul Cieslak, Senior Health Advisor at OHA, stressed the risks of large gatherings.

“One of the main messages we are trying to get out to the public is large gatherings are a really efficient way to spread COVID-19,” he said.

Public health investigation continues

Brogoitti during that press call explained public health must investigate cases before working on contact tracing.

“We are working to respond as quickly as possible,” she said.

The Center for Human Development also asks those who test positive to isolate for 10 days, and those who were in contact with someone positive to isolate for 14 days. The center also reported it is working to contact individuals who may have come in close contact — within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes — with one of the patients.

“If you are identified through this investigation as someone that may be at risk for COVID-19 public health will contact you,” the press release stated. “CHD Public Health staff are making calls now. Some of these calls may look like they come from an unknown number. If you don’t answer, they will leave a message. Please call them back as soon as you can.”

Residents should continue to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19, according to the center, and if they think they might have come in contact with someone or if they have symptoms, they need to speak with their primary health care provider.

1 in 210 Union County residents have virus

The Union County outbreak makes it the 10th county in Oregon with at least 100 cases, and moves it past Lincoln County for the highest number of cases per capita. Now, about .48% — or roughly one out of every 210 individuals — in the county has contracted the disease. Because of the outbreak, now nearly 16% of the test results in the county have come back positive. That number was around 1% last week.

Cieslak with the Oregon Health Authority also said the state is not telling Union County to go back in phases but is looking at case count, hospital capacity and ability to protect its residents.

Mardi Ford, spokeswoman for Grande Ronde Hospital, La Grande, said the hospital is ready to handle a large number of patients. She also was on the Monday press call and explained that Grande Ronde can expand to house 48 patients, and its pavilion near downtown could have up to 200. She also said at the beginning of March the hospital received word to prepare for 500 cases, and that is what it has done.

Union County’s spike in cases is part of a surge statewide that has seen the seven highest single-day counts in the last nine. The current peak came on Monday with 184 new cases, pushing the state total to 5,820. Five days in that stretch have had at least 140 cases: June 7 (146), June 11 (178), June 12 (142) and June 13 (158) and June 15, according to the Oregon Health Authority website.

Like with Union County’s Monday spike, outbreaks were a contributing factor in at least two of the days last week, with a large portion of the June 7 and June 8 spikes (114 cases that day) due to an outbreak at a Newport seafood plant, one that in two days accounted for more than half of Lincoln County’s 206 cases.

The counties with the four highest totals in the state — Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion and Washington — continue to be where the largest portion of cases are, accounting for close to 70.7% of all cases in the state. That ratio, though, is down with the spikes that have occurred outside of the state’s most populous area.

The 10 counties with at least 100 cases are: Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Marion, Polk, Lincoln, Linn, Umatilla, Deschutes and Union. Four more have at least 80: Yamhill, Jackson, Lake and Hood River.

The seven-day average for confirmed cases statewide is at 129, much higher than May’s peak of 78, which at the time was the high point for cases in the state.

Close to 56% of the cases in the state (3,244 total) are considered active.

The number of test results has been up as well. During the first 10 days of June, the state averaged processing more than 2,990 tests a day. All told, the state has conducted 175,941 tests, with about 96.8% of the results coming back negative.

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