POLK COUNTY — Polk County is at risk of moving back up into the high-risk category for COVID-19 exposure as the state has seen a rise in the number of coronavirus cases.
The spike in COVID-19 cases caused a premature end to two sports in the Central School District and within county leadership, as Commissioner Craig Pope confirmed he, too, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Jacqui Umstead, Polk County Health Officer, said both metrics for tracking COVID-19 — cases per 100,000 population and case percentage — rose precipitously since the last tracking period. However, she said it’s not time to panic just yet.
“Polk County is experiencing more cases just like everywhere in the state. We’re not experiencing something they’re not seeing other places,” she said.
The county’s case rate rose from 77.2 to per 100,000 March 14-27 to 189.3 April 4 - 13 and the positivity rate rose from 2.4% to 5.9% over the same period. Umstead said when a county’s COVID numbers climb, they are given a two-week caution period before to determine if the numbers are a blip or an actual trend. After the two weeks, the county could stay in moderate or be moved back to the more restrictive high-risk category.
Umstead said there were a few variables that contributed to the spike in confirmed cases.
“In our cases, we were definitely seeing a spike from small group get togethers, which are a cause for transmission,” Umstead explained. “Plus, there were a few workplace outbreaks, which we’ve had all along, but there have just been a few more in past probably 3 to 4 weeks.”
Pope, who has since returned to work, acknowledged the uptick in COVID cases, but was not yet ready to characterize it as a pathway to an outbreak.
“I think the care facilities and manufacturing operations that have been through this several times over the past year have a good handle on the protocols to practice,” Pope said via email working from home. “I have to have confidence that our experience over the past year will help us adjust as needed to spikes that we are witnessing.”
He chalks up the increased cases comes on the end of traditional “spring break” activities where travel, common community behaviors and COVID fatigue is leading people to relax their guard.
“I can certainly attest to that with my own experience,” Pope said. “I am pretty faithful to wearing a mask when in large group exposures but not as good at it in one-on-one as I could be. Of course, my contracting the virus isn’t about my mask wearing is it?”
Pope said thinking his minor symptoms were nothing but a mild cold, he got tested and was told he was positive for COVID-19. He added he had not received a vaccine yet and now won’t be able to get one until July at the earliest.
“I think the hardest thing I am experiencing is the potential for stigma related to contracting COVID,” Pope said. “We need to make sure people realize that absolutely anyone can get this. We need to make sure to help people realize this is not something they can avoid indefinitely and their best protection is truly getting vaccinated.”
Umstead agreed that county residents getting the vaccine has helped keep potential numbers down.
“We’re not in the same place we were in December and January. I wouldn’t expect us to be back up to that level,” she said. “I would not be surprised to see some more cases in the next couple weeks. But we hope they go down with the nicer weather.”
School officials are concerned with the upward trend in COVID cases. Central School District Superintendent Jennifer Kubista told School Board members last week, of 36 counties in Oregon, Polk County was 27th in COVID numbers. Now, it’s 11th.
“We are going in the wrong direction and we have to pay attention to that,” she said at the April 5 meeting in front of all board members for the first time in months. “We are not going to close schools. We are keeping them open and continue what we’re doing. But we’re paying close attention to this.”
Kubista added what concerns her most about the uptick in COVID numbers is that there are more students in ages 19 and under who are testing positive.
“I’m hopeful this is a blip and it will go down. But we are back to numbers per day we were in November and December, which is starting to be concerning to us,” Kubista said.
On a positive note, all high school athletes who were exposed to the latest outbreak have been cleared to transition into spring sports.
According to the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report, the COVID outbreak spread into multiple buildings within the Central School District. Testing positive for COVID-19 the week of March 28 through April 4 were two students and one staff/volunteer at Central High School, one student and two staff/volunteers at Monmouth Elementary School and two staff/volunteers at Talmadge.
Because the two students at CHS were athletes, Ryan O’Malley, CHS Athletic Director said following OHA and OSAA guidelines, other athletes potentially exposed to them also had to be placed in quarantine.
“For the overall health of the programs, we had to close each of those down for a week,” O’Malley said. “Unfortunately, it was the last week of season.”
He added the guidelines in place by OHA and OSAA require anyone who is an exposure potential must be quarantined for 14 days, unless after the fifth day the athlete gets a COVID test back that is negative.
“I think the things we’ve had in place worked incredibly successfully,” O’Malley said. “I think the fact that these were the only things our school canceled is a testament to the things we do have in place. A lot of other schools in Oregon, and even our conference, have canceled all sporting events.”
O’Malley said all the potentially exposed volleyball athletes were back at practices for other sports by April 7 and football athletes by April 10. He added all spring sports are proceeding with no shutdowns, which include boys and girls golf, boys and girls tennis, baseball, softball and track and field.
Umstead said a good take-home message from the outbreak is residents need to keep doing what they’ve been doing to keep safe — avoid groups, wear a mask, social distance and get the vaccine when it’s your turn.
“The real story is how many people in Polk County are getting their shots. We are doing pretty well and if the supply chain was more consistent and reliable, we would get to our goal of herd immunity sooner,” Pope said. “I have faith that all Polk County partners that are dedicated to fighting this virus will prevail, even with so-called ‘waves or surges.’”