The view from Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis' office in downtown Salem on May 5, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
State officials say Marion and Polk counties will have to record a steady decline in hospital admissions before they will allow a phased opening of businesses.
The two counties were left on the sidelines last week as Gov. Kate Brown approved plans from 31 counties to start opening restricted or closed businesses. The plans submitted by the counties making the case to open were the only ones rejected by Brown.
Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties didn’t submit plans.
Statewide, businesses like furniture stores, art galleries, jewelry stores have been cleared to reopen, but Marion and Polk County residents weren’t able to get their nails done, workout at the gym or grab a drink with friends like most of the rest of the state.
In a letter last Thursday to Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron, Brown wrote that Marion County didn’t meet the first prerequisite of decreasing hospitalizations over a 14-day period.
DOCUMENT: Governor’s letter to Marion County
Marion County saw a spike in hospital admissions for COVID-19 on May 8, with seven patients admitted, according to data provided by Marion County. That more than doubles other admissions seen during the first two weeks of May.
As of Friday, May 15, there were five COVID-19 patients at Salem Health and testing results for another 37 were pending, according to Salem Health.
The state is scheduled to again review metrics for the two counties on Wednesday, May 20, to determine if either can open on Friday, May 22. If the counties aren’t approved for reopening then, the Oregon Health Authority will review county data weekly.
Cameron said the county is doing everything it can to move toward reopening and was expecting to meet Monday with authorities from the Oregon Health Authority to determine if the county needs additional help.
The state has deployed 20 of its 100 contact tracers and case investigators to help Marion County.
“We’re very hopeful and optimistic that we’ll open in Marion County,” Cameron said.
He said the governor’s primary goal was not to overrun the health care system and he said he believes the county has accomplished that.
Despite the recent spike, he said hospital admissions are trending down from a peak of nine hospitalizations on April 2, according to county data.
“The main thing is that we have plenty of room in our hospitals,” Cameron said.
Marion County saw a significant increase in reported COVID-19 infections from the week of April 26 to the week of May 3, the governor’s letter said.
From April 26 to May 2 there were 91 people who tested positive for the coronavirus in Marion County. The following week, 145 people tested positive.
Around 37% of cases from May 3 to May 9 weren’t tied to an identified source, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
OHA spokesman Tim Heider said counties need to have the capacity to interview people infected with COVID-19 within 24 hours to identify their contacts.
If epidemiologists can’t determine where a person got infected, they can’t warn people they had been in contact with to prevent future spread of the coronavirus, Heider said.
In addition to contact tracers, OHA sent two rapid testing machines to Woodburn, giving medical professionals test results in about five minutes.
Woodburn has been hit especially hard with the virus, with residents testing positive at a rate of 638 per 100,000. In central Salem, the rate is about a quarter of that, at 142 per 100,000.
And in Polk County, a spike in cases came last week at a west Salem nursing home. Brown sent the county a letter citing a need for decreasing hospital admissions.
“We know you are working hard to address the challenges your county faces. I have directed the Oregon Health Authority to provide additional support to your efforts to identify and contain COVID-19 in your county,” Brown’s letter said.
DOCUMENT: Governor’s letter to Polk County
At Prestige Senior Living Orchard Heights, 32 residents and 16 staff have tested positive as of May 13, according to a letter Prestige Care sent to residents and families. Seven people from the assisted living center have died.
Before the outbreak at the facility, Polk County had a relatively low number of cases. As of Monday, 93 people have tested positive in the county.
Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said commissioners are standing between a frustrated public and the governor’s office.
“It’s all about hospital admissions. If we don’t have any more admissions, our trend line should be good,” Pope said.
He believes Polk’s reopening will be tied to Marion County, because of a shared city.
“We’re sort of in a three-legged race together,” he said. “Salem is the tie that binds us together.”
Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.