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Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority have issued revised guidance requiring face coverings or face shields for employees in private office spaces, in addition to public office spaces.

The guidance requires face coverings in public and private building hallways, bathrooms, elevators, lobbies, break rooms, and other common spaces, unless employees are at individual work spaces or in meeting rooms where 6 feet of distance from other people can be maintained.

The revised guidance also provides an exception for face coverings, allowing for the brief removal of face coverings in situations where someone’s identity needs to be confirmed for visual comparison, such as interactions in banks or with law enforcement.

Columbia County public health officials are urging residents to be vigilant and continue to follow state mandates designed to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic Update

Columbia County Public Health Director Michael Paul is urging residents to continue to protect themselves, those in their household and fellow community members by wear face coverings, practice physical distancing, avoid large gatherings, and wash hands frequently.

The county recorded its first COVID-19 related death this week after a 55-year-old man died.

Under state and federal health restrictions, the name of the patient and where he lived has not been made public.

“We send our condolences to the family and want to assure the community that we in Columbia County are committed to keeping our citizens safe from COVID-19 as we continue to move forward through this pandemic,” Columbia County Board of Commission Chair Alex Tardif said.

Columbia County Public Health Director Michael Paul said the death should remind residents of the reality that the virus is present and spreading in the community.

"Statewide data indicates large outbreaks have contributed a diminishing proportion of recent cases, and sporadic cases - or those not linked to another case - have increased," Paul said. "An increase in sporadic cases is consistent with community spread," Paul said. "Although recent data and state announcements indicate there is a leveling of transmission statewide, the virus continues to spread locally. It continues to cause loss of life in Oregon."

Paul is urging residents to continue to protect themselves, those in their household and fellow community members by wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and washing hands frequently.

Columbia County's COVID-19 cases have increased from one in late March to 105, as of Aug. 14.

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) officials reported late last week that the virus cases statewide are “leveling off,” but that the public should remain vigilant with social distancing, wearing face coverings and washing hands frequently to help slow the pandemic.

Weekly briefing

During his weekly health update before the Columbia County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, Aug. 12, Paul said the rising COVID-19 cases in Columbia County puts the possibility of reopening schools in peril.

To date, the county has been averaging about 10 COVID-19 cases each week, with last week being the week of the highest number, with 17 cases, Paul said.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Paul said. “Our curve is bending up a little bit.”

Paul said there were 93 confirmed cases and 10 presumptive cases, as of Aug. 12. Presumptive cases are patients who have been in contact with a confirmed case but have not been tested or have not yet received test results.

“For some people, they don’t wish to get tested, or their test results aren’t back yet, and they count as a presumptive case,” Paul said.

Four individuals have been hospitalized and 17 confirmed cases are still infectious, which means they are within the 10-day period of symptom onset, Paul said. Currently, the county public health department is providing daily monitoring of 30 people who have been in close contact with a confirmed or presumptive case and who need support with quarantining.

Whether or not schools can reopen depends on certain metrics set by the OHA and which must be met for three weeks in a row, which Paul explained at the meeting. At the county level, case rates must be less than 20 cases per 100,000 population for three weeks, and the test positivity rate must be at less than 5% for three weeks. Both standards must be met for schools to reopen.

The county is meeting one metric, but not the other, Paul said at the meeting. Rate of positivity is at less than 5%, but cases per 100,000 population is at around 30, according to Paul.

However, for rate of positivity, Columbia County has been faring well in comparison to most other counties in the state because the county has been below 5%, while most other counties are above 5%, according to Paul.

Watch List

Tardif said he had heard that Columbia County had been placed back on the OHA’s watch list and he asked Paul why that was.

“The watch list doesn’t mean you may go back a phase,” Paul said. “It means the state checked in locally and sees what kinds of supports you need to complete the work. I think it’s tied to workload and timeliness of our response, and follow-up with cases in the required timeframe.”

The OHA told The Chief that Columbia County is currently not on the watch list, as of Thursday, August 13, but that that could change depending on the increasing COVID-19 cases.

According to state health officials, counties are placed on the watch list whenever rates of sporadic cases exceeds 50 per 100,000 over a 14-day period and the counties report more than five sporadic cases in the same time frame. Counties remain on the list for at least three weeks, until their sporadic case rates drop.

While the county public health department is receiving questions about a potential coronavirus vaccine, Paul said commenting on the efficacy or safety of any potential vaccine is not the role of the health department.

“We’re just leading the investigations and response,” Paul said. “I would defer to the state and federal partners on the effectiveness and safety of the [potential] vaccine.”

Paul said he hopes people continue to follow mandates in order to keep businesses and schools open and numbers down, so that the county “can get back to some regular sense of normalcy.”

On Friday, August 14, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported COVID-19 claimed two more lives in Oregon, raising the state’s death toll to 385. The OHA also reported 323 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 22,613.

State of Emergency

During the Aug.12 meeting, the commissioners also extended the Columbia County State of Emergency to Dec. 31, which had first been implemented on March 13.

This state of emergency gives Columbia County Public Health and the Columbia County Office of Emergency Management all resources at the state’s disposal to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The declaration authorizes the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners to establish procedures to prepare for and carry out any activity to prevent, minimize, respond to or recover from an emergency.

The county commissioners determined that a state of emergency exists in Columbia County due to the following conditions; COVID-19 is a highly contagious and novel coronavirus for which there is no vaccine, and the public is at risk for contracting the disease. “We want to ensure the safety and protection of our most vulnerable population,” the declaration reads.

Follow the daily COVID-19 case counts at thechronicleonline.com with in-depth reports in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.

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