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Umatilla County sees a spike in COVID-19 cases in July

Nearly half of the 834 COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County have been reported since July 1.

UMATILLA COUNTY, Ore. — In rural Umatilla County, a spike in COVID-19 cases has the county concerned.

"We're deeply concerned," said George Murdock, Vice Chair of the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners. "In some ways we feel somewhat helpless."

Umatilla County, with a population of just over 81,000, reported its first case of the novel coronavirus on March 2. Cases slowly rose throughout the next few months, but since July 1 COVID-19 cases have nearly doubled the county's total amount.

  • July 1 - 42 cases reported 
  • July 2 - 88 cases reported
  • July 3 - 49 cases reported
  • July 4 - 49 cases reported
  • July 5 - 41 cases reported
  • July 6 - 16 cases reported
  • July 7 - 20 cases reported
  • July 8 - 43 cases reported

Murdock says agriculture is a large part of the economy and farm workers are where the county's contact tracers are finding the large spike in cases.

"These are the people who have to go to work," he said. "They don't have a choice of not going to work. They don't often have medical support of any kind or insurance. They don't often have the kind of housing that they need to have. There's just all kinds of conditions that are not ideal for someone to avoid the virus."

At one of the two Lamb Weston plants in Hermiston, 115 cases have been linked to potato processing plant.

"After we learned of the first four cases on June 15, we made the decision to prioritize employee health and close our facility for the immediate term to prevent further spread among our staff," the company said in an e-mail to KGW. "Since June 15, our staff have been at home with pay as we have done everything we can to understand the outbreak and how to bring our team back safely."

On Wednesday, July 8, Lamb Weston said the company brought 30 employees back to work.

"All team members are required to adhere to our safety protocols, including maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask while onsite and completing the health screening upon arrival," the e-mail said.

Credit: Lamb Weston

"Since day one of COVID-19, they've done everything they can to try and be cooperative because they don't want this type of thing happening," Murdock said.

KGW created this interactive map that shows workplace outbreaks throughout the state. In Umatilla County there are 180 cases tied to various businesses.

While cases are on the rise, hospitalizations are not. There are only two hospitals in the county, and Murdock says both have stated they are at or near capacity. Should a spike in hospitalizations happen, the hospitals are trying to find other beds to send patients to at hospitals in the Tri-Cities (Wash.) and Portland.

RELATED: Oregon COVID-19 updates July 8: 217 new cases, 4 more deaths

Umatilla County is one of eight counties on Governor Brown's watch list regarding a spike in cases. Union County, which is to the east of Umatilla County voluntarily went back to Phase 1, but Murdock says that doesn't make sense for Umatilla County.

"I don't know what going back to Phase 1 would accomplish because in actuality, there really isn't much correlation between the non-essential retail outlets and the restaurants and where we're actually having the problem," said Murdock.

He says it will take a few days before the county will see any connection to the 4th of July weekend - the new cases over the weekend and the beginning of the week aren't a reflection of that.

The county hopes to work with the Oregon Health Authority to bring a medical field clinic and make medical care available to all farm workers that don't have access to medical care. He also said they hoped to come up with some economical solutions to support them while they stay home instead of coming to work sick and create an emergency program to create better housing.

"If sick people weren't around other people and weren't having to go to work or weren't going to gatherings, we could stop it," said Murdock.

RELATED: 48 active COVID-19 workplace outbreaks in Oregon

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