Were Not an Island: Rural Outbreaks Challenge Oregons Virus Success – The New York Times

HERMISTON, Ore. — Jose Garcia reached into the bed of his pickup truck and gingerly withdrew a sealed plastic bag. Inside was a homemade mask Mr. Garcia had been given by a worker in one of the sprawling agricultural fields that surround his home in northeastern Oregon. The mask was made of a single, neatly folded paper towel with a rubber band stapled to each end.

“When I saw this, I kind of cried,” Mr. Garcia said.

In an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Garcia, an addiction counselor, spends his days off volunteering to deliver masks from the local health department to field workers. Like many residents of rural Oregon, Mr. Garcia is bracing for a spike in coronavirus cases that feels all but inevitable as local farms and food processing facilities transition into harvest season.

Oregon, once one of the most successful states in managing the pandemic, is now undergoing a viral surge in rural areas. Agricultural areas like Umatilla County, where Mr. Garcia lives and works, now have some of the highest rates of cases in Oregon.

“I know it’s going to get worse,” Mr. Garcia said. “It’s almost like we’re on our own.”

The coronavirus struck Oregon early, with cases emerging in February. But unlike two of its neighboring states, Washington and California, Oregon was not quickly overwhelmed by the pandemic. The state has recorded more than 12,000 infections, far fewer than most of its neighbors. But as the state reopens after an early lockdown, cases are spiking. The state set a grim record on Thursday with 389 new infections.

If the spread of the virus continues at its current rate, Oregon Authority models predict that Portland hospitals will hit capacity in a month, and hospitals throughout the state will be overwhelmed within 90 days.

“We’re sandwiched between California and Washington,” Gov. Kate Brown said. “We’re not an island, and the virus knows absolutely no jurisdictional boundaries.”

The increase has been most drastic in rural parts of the state where outbreaks have been spurred on by large gatherings at churches, food-processing facilities, funerals and graduation parties.

Ms. Brown has ordered Oregonians to wear masks in public buildings, starting July 1. She has also introduced a spending package to fund protective equipment and quarantine pay for farm workers.

Oregon public health officials expect that recent Fourth of July festivities will soon produce new cases, as happened after Memorial Day gatherings. But despite contact-tracing efforts, public health officials are encountering more and more people who are not able to determine how they were infected with the virus, a worrying indication of community spread.

“Our biggest concerns are these household and backyard gatherings where people are getting together with a bunch of other households,” said Dr. Paul Cieslak, a state epidemiologist and a senior health adviser for the Oregon Authority.

“Oregonians, in general, have a ‘We’re all in this together’ mentality,” he said, noting that the public had generally followed public health advice. But he added: “I think we’re starting to see a reversal of that trend now.”

Dr. Cieslak said his staff had observed the public in recent weeks engaged in more of what they have nicknamed “F.I.B.s” — flagrantly infectious behaviors — like attending indoor events without wearing masks.

“We have people who are very concerned about the virus and doing everything under their control,” said Bill Elfering, a commissioner for Umatilla County, which has recorded a spike in cases, partially driven by a local food-processing facility. “We have other people who say, ‘Ah, I’ll survive it and don’t tell me to wear a mask, because I won’t.’”

In neighboring Union County, more than 300 coronavirus cases have been linked to the Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church, which held large gatherings in late May and early June.

John Howard, a Union County resident and former county commissioner, said his brother, Paul, was not a member of the church but had contracted the virus as it spread from the church through the rest of the community.

Mr. Howard said he ached at being separated from his brother while he was hospitalized, and was only able to catch a brief glimpse of him as he was being transferred from the local hospital to one in Idaho that has a ward dedicated to virus patients.

“We were able to see him on the gurney,” Mr. Howard recalled. “He saw us and recognized us.”

On the morning of July 1, his brother died. He was 62 years old. “This didn’t have to happen,” Mr. Howard said.

The recent outbreaks have exacerbated tensions in Oregon’s rural communities, and between the governor, who is seen as representing the state’s big population centers in western Oregon, and county leaders in rural eastern Oregon.

Umatilla County commissioners have seen their economy battered by the shutdown. The county normally hosts one of the largest rodeos in the United States every fall, which pumps millions of dollars into the local economy and generates significant tax revenue. But the event has been canceled, leaving county commissioners worried about their budget, just as they are spending more to combat the pandemic.

“I think a lot of the issue is, the metro areas are driving the bus,” said John Shafer, one of the commissioners. “They are dictating what happens out here.”

He added that the county would follow Ms. Brown’s health guidance, but said communication about state health orders had been poor and worried that the realities of rural life — such as a lack of high-speed internet access that made remote learning difficult — were not being contemplated as the state drew up its guidance for the school year.

Rural leaders said they felt neglected by the state as they watched their urban counterparts appear at news conferences alongside the governor. Some said they were reassured that a mask order was not in the works, only to hear days later that masks would, in fact, be required throughout the state. The sense of neglect was heightened by Oregon’s decision to hang on to some emergency federal funding, rather than sending it directly to rural communities.

The state used some of its federal relief funding to buy protective equipment for the counties, reasoning that it could more easily purchase and distribute supplies in bulk. But the decision meant that rural counties did not receive the cash they had hoped for to fund their public health efforts, including the hiring of contact tracers, and to provide relief grants for local businesses.

Umatilla County expected several million dollars for virus response, Mr. Shafer said, but has received only about $725,000 so far. Other states did not follow Oregon’s approach, giving funding directly to counties.

The governor, in an interview, acknowledged that it has been difficult to manage the virus in a state with so many competing regional priorities.

“It honestly is tense with everyone right now and has been,” Ms. Brown said.

She said Congress should have guided the states on how to spend relief money.

“We did something different,” she said. “I honestly don’t know that it was the right thing, but we thought it was better that we as a state bought and paid for personal protective equipment.”

As serious as the recent caseload has been, many fear that the upcoming harvest season could make things even worse, as additional agricultural workers pour in and processing plants kick into high gear.

A recent outbreak at one of Hermiston’s largest employers, a facility that cuts potatoes into french fries, added 37 cases to Umatilla County’s total.

“That is what our public health department is hammering: if you’re sick, stay home,” Mr. Shafer said. “If you’re in that situation where you’re trying to provide for your family, you might suck it up and go to work. That’s going to be a huge spike.”

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Garcia handed out masks and boxes of groceries from a local food bank at an organic watermelon and cantaloupe farm just outside of town. Marta Cernas, a worker there, said her crew would double in size once the harvest begins in a few weeks. To prepare, the farm has ordered a thermometer to check workers’ temperatures and installed extra sinks so workers can wash their hands more often.

Still, she said she was worried about getting sick. “It affects all of us,” she said. “Everybody here and the whole world.”

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