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Gilliam and Wheeler counties continue to thread needle – avoid COVID-19

Zero cases in Oregon’s 2 smallest counties

A church in La Grande made national news after an outbreak of the Coronavirus swept through the congregation, making it the state’s largest single outbreak to date.

Of 365 church members tested, 236 returned positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist. 

In neighboring Morrow County, 31 people have tested positive for the disease, including 5 people on Friday, June 19. One person has died in Morrow County.

In Umatilla County, cases continue to climb as 268 people have been infected, including 11 new cases on Monday.

Wasco County has had surprisingly few cases, with only 47 people testing positive. However, 4 people did test positive on Saturday, June 20.

According to health professionals, a greater number of tests are being conducted and as a result, more tests are coming back positive.

The vast majority of those who have been infected with COVID-19 have recovered from the illness. However, the state continues to take a very cautious approach to reopening in Governor Brown’s multi-phased plan.

Still, Oregon’s two smallest counties have so far avoided the global pandemic and have had zero cases of COVID-19.

Gilliam and Wheeler counties are the last remaining counties to be COVID-free. The distinction is not widely known outside of the area. Some like it that way.

Many residents of Gilliam and Wheeler counties openly wonder if the mandatory closures of businesses in March and April were necessary. Others are concerned that visitors and tourists from outside of the area are not respecting the small communities and are putting residents at risk.

One thing is for certain: so far, Gilliam and Wheeler counties have threaded the needle and have avoided the global pandemic. Whether or not it will last and how seriously the disease should be taken continues to be a subject of debate.

Neighboring Sherman County and Grant County have had just one case each and Oregon has suffered less than other states. Still, the event is an historical one and has changed the ways in which we live.

Several Employees at Sherman Co. Facility test positive for COVID-19

Area residents are sad to see the cancellation of the Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival and Condon’s Fabulous 4th of July Celebration. Many families with loved ones at Summit Springs Village and Haven House have been unable to enter the retirement facilities for more than three months.

The ongoing effort to keep COVID-19 at bay will see its greatest test in Gilliam and Wheeler counties this summer. Thousands of visitors are coming to explore the area. Cooped up inside, people from all over the northwest are visiting the Painted Hills, rafting the John Day River and exploring the John Day Fossil Beds. Absent this year are international tourists who have flocked to the area in years past.

Tourism is the lifeline of most area businesses. It has never before been such a hot-button issue.

Without tourism, most businesses would not survive. However, the aging population of the area is a significant concern as each tourist is a potential carrier for the disease.

Wheeler County has the oldest population per capita in the state. It also has the fewest people per square mile in Oregon. The average age of a resident from Wheeler County is 57 years old, according to the 2010 US Census. For many, the town of Fossil is considered to be a retirement community.

Residents of Fossil have been aggressive in their effort to keep the disease from taking root. Masks are required in the Fossil Mercantile and are made available for customers at the Fossil Fuel and Espresso. Self-service at the Fossil Fill-Up is not allowed and restaurants like the Dig-In Diner have provided more outside seating and have taken a cautious approach to reopening.

Unlike other towns in the area, there is a concerted effort to have everyone wearing masks in public. It has been an impressive public health effort that has been embraced by the community.

The ability for healthcare workers to quickly respond in Wheeler and Gilliam counties is not a concern. The Asher Community Health Clinic has a state-of-the-art testing machine for COVID-19 on loan from the Oregon Health Authority. The North and South Gilliam Health Districts are more than adequately prepared to identify the disease.

The North Central Public Health District is ready to conduct contact tracing in Gilliam County to ensure that anyone with exposure to a person that tests positive is quarantined and monitored. Still, the hope is that it does not happen. If no cases are reported and the elderly population is not impacted, the counties will have made a significant sacrifice and achieved something significant. For young people that had to forgo schooling and spring activities, changes to county and state fairs – the experience of COVID-19 must be very difficult. For workers and business owners, the loss of income and the stress of financial uncertainty has been heavy.

But it can be argued that the elderly, who have been unable to hold new grandchildren, to celebrate birthdays and family events, have been impacted the most. Some would likely trade their safety from the virus to enjoy their final years with such experiences. Regardless, the disease has not found a foothold in Gilliam and Wheeler counties. In this, residents of Gilliam and Wheeler counties should take pride and continue to strive for a zero-case outcome while we await a cure.


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