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The Marion County Board of Commissioners doesn’t plan to consider additional measures to curb the spread of Covid in the community following the county’s highest case count to date on Tuesday – 464 people newly diagnosed with Covid.

Instead, commissioners said during a Wednesday meeting they’re focused on vaccination outreach, and the county’s public health director said they’re also facing a rise in sexually transmitted infections and other health priorities in addition to Covid.

Commissioner Colm Willis told Salem Reporter board members had a meeting with Salem Health on Tuesday and the hospital didn’t request commissioners impose additional Covid restrictions.

He said commissioners are mainly focused on hospitalization rates, not new cases, and that only 14 of the 464 people who tested positive for Covid Tuesday were hospitalized with the illness.

Michael Gay, Salem Health spokesperson, said the Tuesday update to community leaders was meant to underscore the serious nature of the current surge.

“The surge across Oregon threatens the basic health care infrastructure that Oregonians depend on, most importantly the ability to access emergency services and high-acuity care when needed. People in other parts of Oregon have died because their local hospitals have been overwhelmed with Covid patients. While Salem Health is very prepared and continues to adapt to the surge, it would be foolish to think something like that could never happen here,” he said.

Gay said the hospital has asked everyone, including elected officials, to encourage their circles of influence to get vaccinated, wear a mask and socially distance.

“These are the tools we have to fight the sickness and death of the pandemic,” he said. 

As of Wednesday morning, Salem Hospital had 27 Covid patients in the intensive care unit, 17 of them on a ventilator. In Region 2, which includes Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Linn, Benton, Lincoln counties, there are 88 of 97 staffed ICU beds in use as of Aug. 24.

Salem Hospital’s 30-bed ICU has been accommodating a surge of Covid patients in recent weeks, mostly unvaccinated, which has taken a toll on health care workers caring for patients who may never make it off a ventilator.

The number of patients in the hospital at times means the emergency room has to treat people in the hallway while waiting for beds to open or people to be admitted to other units which are full.

The hospital has maintained that it can accommodate anyone having a medical emergency.

During the meeting, commissioners approved several contracts for vaccine outreach through money provided by the state, including to organizations focused on serving Latinos like Mano a Mano, Interface Network and IZO Public Relations and Marketing.

Commissioner Kevin Cameron said those contracts would help get additional people vaccinated in the county.

He also said the board would continue to follow Gov. Kate Brown’s Covid mandates, most recently an outdoor mask mandate that will impact the Oregon State Fair this weekend.

Katrina Rothenberger, county public health director, said her main message Wednesday was to drive home the importance of getting vaccinated.

She said at Salem Hospital there are currently 94 Covid patients, 81 of whom were unvaccinated.

Since vaccines became available, she said there have been 972 breakthrough cases in Marion County where a vaccinated person contracts the virus, representing less than 1% of people who are vaccinated.

Rothenberger said the county health department is also facing other health issues besides Covid.

“Are we going to stop everything and focus on Covid or are we going to continue everything we’re doing with Covid with regard to increasing vaccination rates and testing efforts?” she said.

She said the county has seen increased rates of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection that kills between 28 and 47 people in the United States per year.

“Covid has really taken its toll on everyone. We don’t really have the time and energy to address every health issue. I just wanted to bring up some other really pressing issues that we’re dealing with and making hard decisions about,” she said.

Rothenberger said the health department doesn’t have the staff to call everyone who’s been infected with Covid and is focusing on the people most at risk of serious illness.

“We’re not going to contract trace our way out of the pandemic,” she said.

During the meeting, Cameron said vaccines work and the rate of breakthrough cases was very low. He said commissioners have done everything they can to make vaccines available.

Commissioner Danielle Bethell said the new vaccine outreach contracts approved Wednesday will only enhance where Marion County had stood throughout the pandemic.

She said the county was the first to have a regional vaccine clinic, the one run by Salem Health at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

During public comment, Gerald Turner, a teacher, said commissioners’ actions haven’t protected his students or the community at large. He referenced commissioners Aug. 11 resolution calling on Brown to cede decisions over mask requirements to local school boards and jurisdictions.

That resolution drew widespread public support from commenters who attended the meeting prior to the commissioners’ vote.

“Local control would be meaningful if you exercised that control to take action during this pandemic,” he said.

He urged commissioners to impose a vaccine mandate for county employees and limit capacity indoors.

Turner said the vaccine outreach contracts commissioners approved represented the barest minimum they could do.

This article has been updated to include comments from Salem Health.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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