Reported Covid tests, cases down in Marion County as wildfires force evacuations

Shawn Baird, of Woodburn Ambulance Services, demonstrates a COVID-19 rapid test on Tuesday, August 25. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Marion County health officials are seeing fewer tests for Covid and fewer reported cases as county residents have fled their homes due to wildfires or sheltered at home to avoid hazardous air.

The lack of data is making it harder for the county’s public health department to get a picture of where the virus is spreading, public health division director Katrina Rothenberger said. The Oregon State Public Health Lab was closed Sunday to Tuesday due to indoor air quality problems, causing a backlog of tests.

In the week following Labor Day, Marion County reported an average of 228 Covid tests daily, down from 377 per day the week before. The percentage of those tests coming back positive was higher – about 11% the week after Labor Day, versus 9% the week before.

The county added 197 cases to its total the week after Labor Day, compared with 230 the week before.

Rothenberger said she expects to see an increase in cases once more normal testing levels resume. The county was reporting a declining number of new cases weekly before the fires hit, but public health officials saw spikes in new cases following Memorial Day and 4th of July when Oregonians attended gatherings across the state. They warned Labor Day could bring similar results.

“I anticipate if we had more testing we would definitely have a little picture of what’s going on. I am worried about the impacts of Labor Day weekend and the shelter,” Rothenberger said.

Community organizations that were helping with mass testing events in Marion County canceled some events due to air quality and because they were helping people displaced by wildfires or struggling with heavy smoke, Rothenberger said.

Some public health workers were reassigned from their normal jobs to help with wildfire response last week, she said, but operations have returned roughly to normal. The county has set up health screenings at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, which is serving as an evacuation point and temporary shelter for some displaced by the fires.

Nicole Vanleerdam, right, and Hecto Martinez, of Marion Estates Independent Living, set up cots for their residents to use overnight after evacuating from Sublimity at the Oregon State Fairgrounds on Tuesday, September 8. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Rothenberger said several people who were evacuated to the fairgrounds have reported Covid-like symptoms since, but she didn’t have an exact count. Several nursing homes were among the facilities evacuated, with residents sheltering briefly at the fairgrounds last week. Rothenberger said those facilities have since been able to allow residents to return.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where residents are elderly and typically have underlying health conditions, have been the sites of Oregon’s deadliest outbreaks of Covid.

Complicating public health efforts is the fact that after a week of hazardous air quality across western Oregon, many people are experiencing respiratory symptoms caused by smoke that mimic the symptoms of Covid, including coughing, difficulty breathing and fatigue, Rothenberger said. Oregon Health Authority has published a guide to shared symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure and Covid with links to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tool to help people decide if they should contact a health care provider.

Rothenberger encouraged anyone not feeling well to stay home and isolated. People without a regular health care provider who need a referral or help addressing possible symptoms can call 211, a service that connects people with available services, she said.

Marion County was working with the state to expand Covid testing and plans to continue that effort once state and county resources are more available, she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.