LA GRANDE — Union County is seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases less than a month after statewide restrictions were lifted.

In the last two weeks, Union County’s COVID-19 cases have exponentially increased. In the past week, the county reported an average of 13 cases every day, more than four times higher than the average case rate in early July.

On July 26-27, 19 positive tests were reported to the state — tied for the highest one-day county total since January. On July 28, the new case count was 21.

According to Union County Commissioner Matt Scarfo, a group including members of the Center for Human Development, Grande Ronde Hospital and county officials will not meet until Wednesday, Aug. 4, to discuss reinstating restrictions.

“Because the state government gave us local control, we better have a plan in case COVID cases continue to rise,” he said. “So we’ve gone through with opening the lines of communication, in case of an outbreak.”

Scarfo said the group has not set any specific numbers to define an outbreak, despite COVID-19 cases quickly rising amid the county’s low vaccination rate of 37%.

A press release from the Center for Human Development stated the county’s test positivity rate also has increased, indicating there likely are more cases in the community that have not yet been reported.

“We want to provide Union County residents with this information so that they can use it to make informed choices for themselves and their loved ones. Particularly for people with underlying conditions where the virus could lead to serious outcomes including death. And for those unable to be vaccinated,” Union County Public Health Administrator Carrie Brogoitti said.

Scarfo said county officials have been monitoring the progress of COVID-19 spread by looking at hospitalizations.

According to Mardi Ford, communications director at Grande Ronde Hospital, hospitalizations have been low and consistently under the capacity of the 25-bed hospital. There were 11 bed occupants at the hospital on July 29. Information on the presence of COVID-19 was not available.

“We would like the community to be reminded that we have had more babies in the hospital during this pandemic than we have had COVID patients,” Ford said. “However, we would also like our community to take COVID-19 seriously and follow the CDC/OHA guidelines in order to prevent overwhelming hospital capacity.”

In Umatilla County, the county’s public health department has aligned with recent recommendations from the state and federal government that everybody, including fully vaccinated people, should wear masks indoors “due to a substantial increase in Umatilla County’s COVID-19 case rate.”

The Oregon Health Authority does not publish case rates over seven days in its weekly metrics, but a report on July 26 shows that, from July 11-22, Umatilla County saw a case rate of 504 new cases per 100,000 people — by far the highest in the state.

During that same period, 17.6% of all tests in the county came back positive, the second highest in Oregon, just behind Morrow County’s 17.9%.

“At this point, you’re either going to get the virus or you’re going to get vaccinated,” Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said. He added that masks are a “tool that we can use to try to not overload the hospitals and — not to be too blunt — not end up with a whole bunch of dead people.”

Around the country, COVID-19 cases are rising and communities are reinstating restrictions to limit the spread of the virus. Los Angeles County, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, Missouri, have all brought back mask mandates for all residents, vaccinated or not.

On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all residents in high-risk areas — regardless of vaccination status — should wear masks.

On the same day, the Oregon Health Authority recommended people wear masks in indoor public spaces, but did not mention a possibility of a statewide mask mandate.

On Friday, July 30, Gov. Kate Brown released an order for state workers and public visitors to wear masks inside state facilities but did not update the current policy of leaving public health mandate decisions to individual counties.

“We also must protect everyone — both agency employees and community members who visit state agencies for information, services, and resources. This new guidance accomplishes both,” Brown said in a statement.

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