Recent spike in COVID-19 cases linked to northern Marion County

The Marion County Health and Human Services headquarters in Salem (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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The Marion County Health Department has determined that a recent spike in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 can be traced to the northern portion of the county, an area that’s experiencing more than three times the cases of other parts of the county.

Fifty-four county residents got a positive test back between Saturday, April 18, and Monday, April 20, the largest three-day increase since the first Marion County resident confirmed positive on March 8.

While the number of new positive cases of the coronavirus is decreasing statewide, Marion County saw the highest number of new cases per 10,000 in the past week compared to the rest of the state.

Katrina Rothenberger, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said the numbers from last weekend concerned her that the county was headed in the wrong direction and would see more infections.

“We know Covid is in our community and it’s going to continue to spread. We’re taking it day by day so reading too much into a one weekend spike is a challenge when we’ve got two months of data,” she said.

Rothenberger said the Oregon Health Authority has offered to examine the data to help determine what triggered the surge. Marion County has one of the highest rates of the coronavirus in the state.

“We’re certainly working on it. I don’t know if anyone has a great answer as to why Marion County has experienced a higher rate,” she said. “I think we’re all still trying to get to the bottom of that question.”

She’s hoping the two agencies can establish an explanation and refine methods to educate the residents about the need for social distancing.

“It was certainly concerning” Rothenberger said. “When I saw that, this was not the direction we should be headed right now.”

Rothenberger said a couple weeks ago the health department started collecting case data by zip code and released it publicly on Thursday, April 23.

LINK: Marion County zip code data

From that data the health department pinpointed the surge was in northern Marion County.

Rothenberger said the data helps the county target where it should amp up messaging.

The highest number of cases countywide are in the zip codes encircling Gervais, Woodburn and Sublimity.  

Gervais’s zip code with 375 cases per 100,000 has the highest rate of cases in the county. By comparison, south Salem has 60 cases per 100,000.

Around 35% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Marion County identify as Hispanic or Latino. That compares to the state figure of 26%.

Both Woodburn and Gervais have higher Latino populations, about 26% of the people there are foreign-born, according to census data.

OHA spokesman Jake Sunderland said the virus is disproportionately affecting Latino communities statewide and the state is looking at more intensive outreach as a result.

He said OHA is researching the demographics of positive cases to see if they are sporadic or linked to a known outbreak or household.

The higher COVID-19 rate in Marion County could be due to a number of factors, including a higher number residents seeking, and health care providers approving, testing for patients, whether those patients are experiencing symptoms or not; a higher number of cases in congregate settings; or the virus simply hitting certain parts of the community hard,” he said in an email.

Rothenberger said county workers have called city and health officials in northern Marion County and told them about resources available for testing.

“Primarily it’s information and education. We’ll be reaching out in specific languages,” she said. “We try and make sure that folks have the help that they need to stay isolated and quarantined. If folks don’t have two weeks’ worth of food, how can we support them? Those are the things that we do.”

Rothenberger said the county is working on giving small grants to community partners to help with outreach and messaging in multiple languages.

As of April 20, Rothenberger said half of the 377 cases were linked to a cluster outbreak or cluster transmission.

The other half are community spread and a quarter of those are asymptomatic, she said.

Rothenberger said testing supplies are limited, but the county received 500 kits to start testing vulnerable populations.

The Oregon Health Authority updated its guidelines on Monday to allow for testing of underserved or marginalized communities, essential frontline workers and those living in group settings.

Rothenberger said one out of every four cases is associated with an outbreak and half of those are in long-term care facilities.

Sublimity’s zip code with 338 cases per 100,000 has four and half times the number of cases that central Salem’s zip code does.

Six local nursing homes have outbreaks, defined as three or more residents or employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, or at least one death from the virus.

As of March 30, there were 16 total cases at the Marquis Marian Estates in Sublimity.

Rothenberger said the health department is looking at partnering with a local ambulance provider to potentially do drive-thru testing.

“We haven’t done one yet, but we are identifying partners to identify those specific areas,” she said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.

NOTE: Salem Reporter is providing free access to its content related to the coronavirus as a community service. Subscriptions are vital to continue this so please sign up today.