LA GRANDE — The Oregon Health Authority reported two more La Grande workplaces are the sites of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Grande Ronde Hospital has 11 employees with COVID-19, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s latest weekly report on the coronavirus, and New Day Enterprises has nine.
OHA reports only workplace outbreaks with five or more cases and only for workplaces where there are at least 30 employees. The case counts include anyone linked to the outbreak, per the report, “which may include household members and other close contacts.”
Grande Ronde in a press release Wednesday morning announced the Oregon Health Authority notified hospital President and CEO Jeremy Davis on Tuesday about the outbreak.
“Given the current outbreak in our community, an increase in testing and contact tracing; and given the fact that Grande Ronde is the largest private employer in Union County, we had anticipated this announcement could come,” Davis said in the press release.
The hospital employs 750 people, nearly 5% of Union County’s workforce, and reported in March it implemented new screening procedures for each worker and each shift at all of its facilities. Employees who do not pass initial screening questions or a temperature check have to immediately go to the Employee Health Center for further evaluation.
Davis also said while it is not the news the hospital hoped to hear, it has been preparing for any potential outbreaks. He said employees who tested positive have been asked to stay home and quarantine per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
New Day Enterprises is a nonprofit that supports adults with developmental disabilities, according to its website, and has about a hundred people on staff. Executive Director Christy Slack was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Grande Ronde Retirement Residence, La Grande, which last week reported it had four cases among its staff, added one more. And Outdoors RV, which along with Northwood Manufacturing makes up the plants within Northwood Investments, has two more cases, bumping its total to seven. A week ago, Northwood reported Outdoors had five confirmed cases.
Union County added five more cases Wednesday, raising its total to 342, according to the Center for Human Development. The center continued to report 13 recovered cases and is now listing 328 active cases. One person has died with COVID-19 in the county.
The county also had 121 more negative test results, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority, raising the overall count to 1,674 and dropping the positive test rate to 17%.
Baker County added three new cases, moving its total to four. Wallowa County, meanwhile, is up to 10 cases.
Tuesday night revelation
Davis participated Tuesday evening in a virtual meeting with Northeast Oregon Joint Information Center to address key questions about the COVID-19 outbreak in the county, but during that meeting he did not bring up the outbreak at the hospital.
Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen also participated in the livestream and revealed the sheriff’s office knew about the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church’s violations of Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order preventing large gatherings prior to the early June outbreak.
Rasmussen said the sheriff’s office received a complaint one Sunday about the church continuing to gather and discussed the matter with Lighthouse pastor James Parker, who Rasmussen said acknowledged the dangers and stated the church would shut down.
More noise complaints followed when the church began to meet outside. Rasmussen said he was not in contact with the church for a period of time after the initial complaint, and as far as he knew other officers handled the situation.
“When this most recent event happened I was unaware of any of the types of meetings that were going on out there,” Rasmussen said. “I was aware of it when it hit the media.”
The Union County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement services for Island City, but Rasmussen went on to say the sheriff’s office will not cite the church for the gatherings. He said it is important for the community to work together and not create divisive situations. He said the focus has been on moving forward and preventing it from happening again.
Protecting privacy a priority
Locals have been clamoring for more information about the COVID-19 cases in the county, including the number of hospitalizations, whether individuals confirmed to have the virus are isolating and more. Carrie Brogoitti, public health director for the Center for Human Development, during the livestream addressed those matters.
“About a month ago we had a small number of cases, so we were hesitant to share the information people are asking about because we wanted to protect the privacy of the person,” she said. “In a small community it can be pretty easy to figure out who we are talking about by giving a small amount of details. But, at this time things have changed pretty dramatically so we are really in a different situation. We are asking the community to understand we received over 300 positive cases from over 1,000 tests in a matter of weeks, so this is a significant volume of work (and) we are working around the clock to get accurate information.”
While getting out the information is important, she continued, there is greater importance on ensure the information is accurate. Brogoitti urged people to use the Oregon Health Authority’s website to find answers to questions CHD has not answered. She also explained health authorities do not release specific locations due to how the virus is spread.
“In the case of this disease, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for us to release locations,” Brogoitti said. “Our best tool for identifying people who are at risk for contracting the virus is through contact investigations and contact tracing.”
Some of the information the center does not have includes the number of asymptomatic cases and hospitalization statuses. In regard to the hospital, she said during the livestream, it is up to Grande Ronde Hospital to share that information.
Grande Ronde Hospital’s Davis said the hospital does not share the number of COVID-19 patients it treats due to privacy concerns. He said while some hospitals may be reporting numbers, others are not, and not reporting is the approach the hospital plans to continue taking.
“In a larger urban area where folks may have more anonymity I could see hospitals being a bit more open to sharing some of this data,” Davis said. “But we live in a very small community, a tight-knit community, and we have never really shared census data around patient diagnosis before. Out of an abundance of caution we want to preserve that policy even during this time of COVID.”
The Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report showed Grande Ronde Hospital has between one and nine COVID-19 patients. The OHA, however, has been providing age ranges of COVID-19 patients in Wallowa County — with a population near 7,200 as compared to almost 27,000 in Union County — and reporting patients are isolating. The OHA has not provided that information in Union County.
Davis said as the situation develops it is possible the hospital’s policy will change. He also said the hospital continues to run and has capacity for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 cases.
as they come in.
Sheriff ready to keep church safe
During the livestream, Rasmussen said the sheriff’s office will respond to any types of problems Pentecostal Lighthouse Church has with safety. He said he has received texts and seen posts in the community attacking the church and has spoken with Parker to assure church members the sheriff’s office will provide protection if needed.
“We are going to be there for them as we would with any member of the community to stamp threats down and ensure people are safe, property is safe and there is no damage,” Rasmussen said.
He also said the focus should not be on Union County having one of the highest cases of COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation.
“People are calling in. The New York Times sent an email today and I didn’t respond,” Rasmussen said. “My focus is dealing with this community and we don’t want media outlets to make it look like we are not a connected community, (like) we are not a responsible community, because we are.”
La Grande Police Chief Gary Bell also participated in the livestream and talked about Gov. Kate Brown ordering people to wear face masks inside public spaces statewide beginning July 1. He said some people may not be able to wear a mask, such as those with underlying conditions and children younger than 12. Business can require customers to wear masks, but Bell said if a person claims they cannot wear a mask due to underlying conditions the business should not ask any additional questions.
He also said that a business can ask the person to leave. He compared this to the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” rule. Bell asked people to avoid confrontations and said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could sanction businesses for not following guidelines. But the police department, he said, will not arrest or cite people for not wearing a mask.
“Don’t call the police department or 911 center to report violations of people not wearing face coverings,” Bell said. “We simply don’t have the resources or the capacity to handle the number of calls that this could create.”
Observer reporter Ronald Bond contributed to this feature.