It took less than a month for COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County to rise again. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown added the county back to Oregon’s COVID-19 watchlist Friday — which she acknowledged was a first as Oregon continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the first time we have seen a county added back to the watchlist,” Brown said. “Combined with yesterday’s record high statewide case count, this is a sign that we must tread cautiously or we risk losing the gains we’ve made in slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
Umatilla joins three other counties on the COVID-19 watchlist: Benton, Clatsop and Malheur.
Umatilla County has been one of the hardest-hit counties in Oregon through much of the summer, following a series of large workplace outbreaks in Hermiston and surrounding areas. A study conducted by Oregon State University in late July estimated that 17% of people in Hermiston were, at that moment, infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
At one point, cases in the county were so high that the state rolled back Umatilla County to baseline “stay home, stay safe” orders. It stayed there for 21 days, from July 31 to Aug. 21. Coincidentally, that’s also how long the county spent off the COVID-19 watchlist.
While Multnomah, Washington and Marion counties have more cases, Umatilla, which stands at 3,147 cases as of Friday, has a fraction of the population that western Oregon counties have. Only sparsely populated Morrow and Malheur counties have more cases per capita.
Counties are placed on the COVID-19 watchlist when state officials determine that the coronavirus is spreading out of control. It isn’t directly related to case counts or the county’s test positivity rate. Instead, officials look for the number of COVID-19 cases that can’t be traced to a pre-existing case. That’s an indicator that a lot of undetected community spread is happening.
Officially, once counties are added to the list, they receive additional state resources and are frozen in their current phase of reopening for three weeks. Unofficially, it serves as a warning to residents, letting them know that things are getting worse.
When Umatilla County was removed from the watch list on Sept. 18, just a week after it was allowed to move to Phase 2 of reopening, County Commissioner John Shafer told the East Oregonian it was a “PR win” for the county, adding that removal would have little impact on the county’s COVID-19 response.