Bordering Idaho, Difficult For Malheur County To Corral Virus

Different responses to the Covid epidemic in Oregon and Idaho along with cross-border spread of the virus boosted local cases of the infection and complicated the response by Malheur County health officials.

While Malheur County is culturally and politically aligned with its Idaho neighbors, Covid restrictions in each state vary based on two divergent approaches.

Idaho adopted a regional approach to the Covid crisis and pushed authority to fight the virus down to the county level. Oregon, meanwhile, is following mandates set statewide by Gov. Kate Brown and her health advisors. Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, warned in a web posting of the risks because of Idaho.

“Even though there are fewer restrictions in Idaho and people who live or work in Malheur County could attend large gatherings and be in public around others without protecting each other with face coverings, they absolutely shouldn’t,” Poe said. “The risk of rising Idaho cases to the health and reopening of Malheur County is real.”

Malheur County saw a sudden surge in Covid cases in July. The county recorded the third-highest number of cases per capita in the state and that compelled the Malheur County Court to limit the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings. The steps didn’t work and earlier this month Gov. Kate Brown moved the county back a level in its reopening efforts.

The switch to Phase I came as Malheur County’s cumulative positive testing rate hovered around 19%.

While lines on a map delineate the two states, Malheur County and western Idaho are very much the same community.

As many as 5,200 Idaho residents worked in Malheur County in 2017, accounting for 35% of all employees in the county, and 1,500 of Malheur County residents, 5% of all residents, work in Idaho, according to a 2019 report from Christopher Rich, Oregon Employment Department regional economist.

One large pull of employees from across the border is Snake River Correctional Institution, which employs 71% of its 870 workers from Idaho, according to the state Department of Corrections.

With Covid cases mounting, local health officials suspected many of the county’s cases may be linked to known Idaho Covid cases. But the Malheur County Health Department had no way of linking a local Covid case to a known Idaho case.

“It was just showing up in our numbers as sporadic spread even though that person could be in quarantine and in close contact with an Idaho case,” said Poe, the county health director.

Sporadic cases are a key benchmark used by the state when it considers the severity of a COVID-19 outbreak in a county. A high sporadic case count can affect a decision to allow a county to move ahead on Oregon’s reopening plan. By identifying the source of more cases, fewer are listed as sporadic.

Finding a way to track and link the county’s sporadic cases was a high priority, said Poe.

Last week the Oregon Health Authority offered to help the county do that, she said.

“That means the sporadic rate should go down. What we are tracking is the residents in Oregon who have connections to Idaho cases. We are not tracking Idaho cases that have connections to Oregon. So, we will certainly have more information but we will still be isolating and quarantining based on exposure,” said Poe.

Poe said the ability to track sporadic cases will be helpful.

“It gives us more insight on how we track an outbreak. So, it will show us, essentially, that even though exposure was not to somebody in Malheur County, it was a known case,” said Poe.

The differing standards in the two states means Oregonians are expected to wear masks and limit their social gatherings while Idaho residents largely go without such mandates.

Washington County, Idaho, located just north of Ontario across the Oregon border, doesn’t require residents to take any special precautions, said Kirk Chandler, county commission chair.

Chandler said a low-key approach to virus restrictions was the best way to go forward.

“This is being manipulated so we just backed off of it and said it is your freedom. We are just kind of letting people take care of themselves. If you feel you should wear a mask, wear a mask. If you feel you should not go into a place because you are an at-risk person, don’t go,” he said.

Chandler doesn’t believe COVID-19 cases in Idaho hurt Malheur County.

“I don’t see what we are doing here impacting you anymore that what you are doing is impacting us,” said Chandler.

The Payette School District, however, delayed the return to school by a day as the infection continued to spread in the community. Its schools were reopening to all students this Tuesday, and school will be held through Thursday the first week.

“Masks are highly recommended for all staff and students when physical distancing is not possible, and instruction is not compromised,” according to the district’s website.

Gov. Kate Brown recently suggested that counties in Oregon and Idaho along the border should work together on a joint response to the crisis.

Chandler doesn’t believe establishing a common policy in the border area is necessary.

“I don’t see why we would get together as a group of counties other than just what we are trying to do politically to get out of it,” he said.

He sees the politics as an added challenge to the pandemic.

“It’s turned into a political thing that has nothing to do with the disease and the disease is just a way to control people,” said Chandler.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said he hasn’t reached out to his counterparts in Payette or Washington counties as suggested by the governor. Joyce said creating template for Malheur, Payette and Washington counties to address the virus outbreak would be difficult.

“I am not sure how that works,” he said. “Oregon’s system is different than Idaho’s system. Their structure is more like it is left up to the counties and the cities to set the rules.”

Joyce said he isn’t sure just how much impact Idaho’s COVID-19 cases have on Malheur County.

“I don’t think there is any science,” he said.

Poe said while Idaho cases are impacting Malheur County’s pandemic response, transmission of the virus goes both ways.

“We have people who live in Malheur County who have exposed people in Idaho and people who live in Idaho who have exposed people in Malheur County,” said Poe.

The key difference, she said, is in the population between Malheur County and the counties closest to it in Idaho.

Despite its geographic location, Malheur County is part of the greater Boise metro area where 730,426 people live, work and play.

“It is just a tremendous difference – 700,000 people versus 30,000 people in Malheur County,” said Poe.

The geographic challenge isn’t unique to Malheur County, said Marissa Morrison Hyer, press secretary for Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

“We have similar issues in different communities whether on the Utah border or the west side of the state with Oregon and Idaho,” she said.

Little isn’t focused on a cross-border cooperation, she said, but instead has adopted a “more regional response.”

Morrison Hyer said there has been discussion with Southwest District Health – the agency that oversees Canyon, Payette and Washington counties – about limited gatherings and closing taverns, but no decision has been made.

Coronavirus restrictions are “an issue that the governor tasked the public health districts to address,” she said.

Overall, said Morrison Hyer, Little delegated the pandemic response to local public health districts to address.

Poe said local governments are critical in the fight to overcome coronavirus.

“The role of government is not to say you are on your own but to protect people they represent,” said Poe.

Reporter Aidan McGloin also contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.

This story was originally published by Malheur Enterprise and is posted here through an agreement among a dozen Oregon news sites to share coronavirus content.

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