LA GRANDE — Union County’s number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 remains at four, and Wallowa County’s at one. While some Eastern Oregon officials are pushing to reopen the area’s economy, Union County’s head public health official is urging caution about moving too fast.
Union County Public Health Administer Carrie Brogoitti said COVID-19 primarily spreads through coughing and sneezing, but someone with the virus can transfer it to objects and someone touching one of those objects and then touching their face, for example, could end up with an infection as well.
The unknowns about the virus dictate prudence.
“As we learn more about this virus we also believe that COVID-19 can be detectable in the air for up to three hours, can live on copper for four hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours, and on plastics and stainless steel for up to two or three days,” Brogoitti said. “We do not have definitive evidence that people can become infected this way, but until we have more information it is also not possible to rule this out.”
Whether people can have the virus and not have symptoms of illness is another question.
“It is possible there are people in the community who have the virus but are not showing signs of illness,” she said. “Because we are still learning about this virus, it is difficult to know exactly how people are getting it and what mitigations need to be put into place to reduce disease transmission.”
All of these factors, Brogoitti said, make it difficult to completely reduce risk when in public places.
“I have been thinking about this myself, when I leave the house for essential needs like groceries,” she said. “During my most recent trip to the grocery store, I touched a number of shared surfaces: the grocery cart handle, freezer doors, all of the items I purchased that could have been touched by others, and the keypad and pen needed for completing the purchase. Then I grabbed my keys, my phone, the car door handle, my steering wheel, the shifter, the inside door handle, the front door to my house, and probably other things I don’t remember before I was able to wash my hands. I sometimes try to imagine I have glitter on my hands and how many places I would leave it in one very short visit to the store.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and federal officials have discussed removing some protections and boost the struggling economy — and possibly doing so first in rural areas of the state
“From a public health perspective we do not want to do this too soon,” Brogoitti said. “Our goal is to maintain health care and hospital capacity so everyone with a serious case of COVID-19 can get the care they need. The problem is that when we max out the system we are too late, we can’t go back and change it once we get there. So what we do today is impacting what happens two weeks from now.”
She said she can understand why some people consider social distancing and other protection measures as overreactions given Union County has not seen many cases — but retaining low numbers is the entire point of the ongoing restrictions.
“This is the goal, and we are meeting it,” she said. “This is why we have all of the orders in place. One of the things we sometimes say in public health is that when we are doing our job you don’t see us.”
And viruses, she stressed, don’t recognize geographic boundaries like county lines.
“Even with physical distancing and other executive orders in place, it is possible the virus can still spread here as it has other areas of our state and nation,” she said.
For instance, neighboring Umatilla County has 29 cases total. So far, 16 of those victims have recovered.
The Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday reported 2,059 people in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, and 78 have died from it. But Wednesday marked the first day since March 29 that Oregon has not had any new deaths from the virus.
Still, until we know more about the virus, Brogoitti said, lifting the bans requires careful planning for mitigating the risks of infection, particularly among the health care workforce, first responders, police and people who are most at risk of becoming severely ill if they were to contract the virus.
“We know that the community is making huge sacrifices and that this impacts families and businesses in very serious ways,” Brogoitti said. “I do remind myself every day that the steps we are taking are aimed at saving lives.”
The local effort to curtail the spread of the virus received a boost Tuesday.
Oxarc Inc. of La Grande donated several items of personal protective equipment of gloves, N95 masks and safety glasses to Union County emergency responders, according to a press release from the local joint information center.
The NE Oregon Joint Information Center also reported Grande Ronde Hospital and Clinics providers are concerned the pandemic is keeping people from seeking emergency treatment. For example, the La Grande hospital’s emergency department is reporting the numbers for patients coming in with symptoms of stroke is on the decline.
Cook Memorial Library and other city departments are partnering to encourage residents to go outside each evening at 7 p.m. to wave and say hello to their neighbors. The goal of the “Say Hi La Grande!” campaign, according to the press release from the library, is to ease the loneliness of social distancing.
“This is the time to look out for each other, and check on our neighbors, even if from a safe distance,” said library director Kip Roberson.
Other communities in Oregon and around the nation are participating in the neighborly wave movement.
The Union County Chamber of Commerce initiated a “6 Feet Challenge” on its Facebook page, asking businesses to find creative ways to show what 6 feet of social distancing looks like. Several have participated. You can check out responses at www.facebook.com/TravelUnionCounty/.
Efforts such as these are meant to boost morale as we wait out the restrictions of social distancing. Protection orders from the state and federal government are taking an emotional and economic toll, Brogoitti said, and it’s important that moving forwarding should include assessing the greatest points of risk and putting steps in place to reduce those.
“We don’t completely know what this looks like right now,” she said, “but we are thinking about it and are starting to have conversations in preparations for these next steps.”
Observer staff contributed to this report.