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Public health director says county's poor health means cases could be serious; but none so far in Jefferson County.

COURTESY PHOTO - The back of Jefferson County Public Health Director Michael Baker's business card has been the same for four years. 'My message for public health has never changed,' he said.Jefferson County Public Health Director Michael Baker has had the same business card since he started the job four years ago.

The back of his business card has a simple list of ways to stay healthy.

They're the same things public health officials are stressing now — hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when you're sick.

"My message for public health has never changed," he said. "That is the message, that's been the message, that will be the message.

"And the other point, maintain a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Baker is especially concerned about Jefferson County residents because the county is ranked 35th of 36 ranked counties in Oregon, making it one of the unhealthiest places in the state.

As of press time Tuesday, Jefferson County had no presumptive positive cases of COVID-19.

But Baker believes the first case is just a matter of time, and the health of the community means the odds are higher that people will have more serious cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, he told the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners at an emergency meeting Monday, March 23.

Asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart problems make people at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

"A high percentage of our population already has these underlying conditions," Baker said. "Statistically, a healthier person is more likely to recover."

"That would be the takeaway message that I have," Baker said. "A healthy community is more likely to have a recovery from it than an unhealthy community."

Baker also wants to dispel rumors about the virus.

"9:02 am., there are no cases of the coronavirus, COVID-19," he told the commissioners. "There is not a case here in Jefferson County."

As of 11:12 a.m. Wednesday, March 25, that was still true.

He said the last test the county received had come back negative, and anyone under monitoring was a low risk.

"I do want to make one thing abundantly clear," he said. "The test results for Deschutes County are all Deschutes County residents."

Even if a Jefferson County resident is tested in Deschutes County, their test results will be reported locally, Baker said.

If a Jefferson County resident had a presumptive positive case, the press would be notified immediately.

COURTESY IMAGE: OREGON HEALTH AUTHORITY - The Oregon Health Authority has social media images to spread the word about what Gov. Kate Brown's executive order requires."Our biggest concern right now is testing," he said. "We still don't have enough testing supplies to do an accurate count. ... There's literally a shortage of Q-tips at this point."

That means public health officials don't know how widespread the coronavirus is.

"We suspect it's here," Baker said.

He said by midweek last week, Jefferson County had sent out more than 100 tests. At first, only people who were hospitalized were getting tested. That has changed since the state has allowed private labs to process the tests.

Baker said positive results are received more quickly than negative ones, and it takes three to seven days to get results back, depending on which lab is processing them.

John Stevens, who called into the meeting, asked Baker to summarize what has changed from 10 days ago when he met with Crooked River Ranch residents.

"Ten days ago seems like a whole different lifetime at this point," Baker said. "Things are changing minute by minute."

He said that is why he always gives the time when he says there are no presumptive positive cases in the county.

He said the bigger concern than the number of cases is that "we just don't know how prevalent it is."

And there could be people "walking around that don't show symptoms because they're not susceptible."

TERESA JACKSON/MADRAS PIONEER - Jefferson County Sheriff's Sgt. David Pond, who serves as the county's emergency manager, prepares to address the Board of Commissioners at a special meeting Monday, March 23.Jefferson County Sheriff's Sgt. David Pond is the county's emergency manager.

He also gave the commissioners an update.

"Public health's been doing an outstanding job with the resources that we have here," Pond said.

He added that he sees part of the problem as being an "information crisis."

"Emergency management's basically following the executive orders from the governor," he said.

He is also working on ordering personal protective equipment for all of the jurisdictions in the county. He started with a small order to test the system, he said, and he received it.

He then surveyed first responders and ordered more.

He is also working with the Central Oregon Emergency Information Network to put out consistent messages across the region.

He has conference calls every morning and said most of the focus has been on Deschutes County because it has presumptive positive cases of COVID-19.

He is also making sure St. Charles Madras has the supplies it needs.

Commission President Kelly Simmelink said he heard that Hood River County had asked hikers to stay off Mount Hood.

Pond said, "The message is: be safe while you recreate."

He said it is lucky that the Pacific Crest Trail is currently covered in snow, adding that search and rescue resources "are stretched thin right now."

He is asking the public not to take unnecessary risks.

Sheriff Jim Adkins said he knows some citizens are concerned that stay-at-home orders mean the government is trying to take over people's lives.

He said of Gov. Kate Brown's order, "All of us should take it serious enough that we all should stay at home."

He said he as been researching the 1918 flu epidemic.

"It was horrendous back then, and they did not take the actions that we are taking today."

He said people need to trust the people God has put in place, including the president.

He encouraged people to stay home and to keep washing their hands.

As far as the Sheriff's Office goes, Adkins said, "everything's working fine. The emergency manager's taking good care of me."

He is working to make sure that everyone entering the jail is healthy.

Baker said after the meeting that people should continue to work on prevention.

"I would say there is no end at this point, based on things like seasonal influenza," he said. It used to be the flu season lasted from October to March. "But we're seeing cases of influenza year-round now.

"I think that points to a shift in philosophy," he continued. "We maintain our health more out of prevention ..."

He said the isolation and social distancing will end when there is mass testing and supply catches up with demand.

But the virus may never fully go away, the same way West Nile virus is still around, but there are few cases of it.

"We've been comparing from day one the number of cases of this COVID-19 to the number of cases of seasonal influenza," he said. Even though there is a vaccine available for the seasonal flu, Jefferson County's immunization rate is only 25%, and 22,000 people have died this year from it.

"We know that kills people, yet prevention-wise, only about 25% of our people take advantage of one of the most effective vaccines."

The HPV vaccine has very low rates in Jefferson County despite its efficacy, too, he said.

For now, social distancing is doing what a vaccine would do, Baker said, by stopping the number of hosts available.

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