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Crook County COVID case totals dip enough to transition to 'high' risk category

RAMONA MCCALLISTER - People in Crook County have not been able to dine-in since before Thanksgiving. That should finally change later this week.

The Friday leading up to Valentine's Day weekend, Deschutes County was given the green light to open its restaurants on a limited basis.

Crook County residents found out they had to keep waiting – and nobody knew for sure how long.

As it turns out, that wait should finally end this Friday, thanks to a continued drop in new cases locally. For the two-week period starting Jan. 31 and ending Feb. 13, Crook County had 58 new cases, and its positive COVID test rate during that timeframe was 7.5%. To be eligible for "high" risk category, instead of "extreme," which makes local dine-in possible, a county must have a case total lower than 60 during a two-week timeframe and have a positive test rate lower than 10%.

According to Vicky Ryan, Crook County's emergency preparedness coordinator, once a county meets the metrics that enable a change in category, they have an additional waiting week. That waiting week occurred locally between Feb. 14 and 20. The next week following that waiting week, eligible counties transition on Friday to a new category.

"That gives our businesses an opportunity to plan ahead," Ryan said of the time lag. "That warning week gives them almost two full weeks to plan ahead to use everything if they are going back into a higher level or purchase more if they are going down (a level)."

Crook County just missed changing risk categories earlier this month as new case totals between Jan. 24 and Feb. 6 reached 61.

"We were one case over," Ryan said. "That is what has people up in a roar right now. Deschutes County got to open, we didn't. How come?"

Another way Deschutes County differs is that Oregon Health Authority uses a different case total metric for counties with more than 30,000 people. Eligibility in those counties is determined by the number of new cases per 100,000 people during a two-week period. So even though their weekly case totals are much higher than Crook County, they were low enough relative to Deschutes County's population to make the county eligible for a lower risk category.

The change to the "high" risk category lifts the prohibition against restaurant dining, allowing up to 25% of maximum capacity in an establishment or 50 people. In addition, the maximum gathering size for outdoor entertainment increases from 50 to 75.

The next risk category down from "high" features additional increases in gathering sizes. Under the "moderate" risk category – which requires a two-week case total between 30 and 44 and a positive test rate less than 8% – restaurants can seat up to 50% of maximum capacity or 100 people. Meanwhile, outdoor entertainment crowds are capped at 150.

The "lower" risk level – which is the lowest level available – allows up to 300 people at outdoor entertainment venues and 50% capacity for indoor dining. In order to qualify for this risk level, a county must have fewer than 30 new cases during a two-week period and have a positive test rate of less than 5%.

As local numbers trend down, Crook County health officials continue to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible. Last Tuesday, at a weekly public vaccination clinic at Crook County Fairgrounds, Ryan said about 380 people received the vaccine.

People 75 and older were eligible to receive the vaccine last week, although this week the age limit was lowered to 70. Next Tuesday, March 2, Ryan anticipated the age limit dropping again to 65 and older.

"Then (the week after that) we will move into more of the essential worker category, as it becomes eligible," Ryan said.

While the long-term eligibility outlook is less certain, one certainty – provided doses remain available – is that the weekly vaccination clinics will continue into next month and likely beyond.

"We are scheduled at the fairgrounds in Carey Foster Hall through the end of April," Ryan said.

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