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County, state and federal health authorities rethink protection protocols

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER - Monday, Aug. 2, firefighter Peter Trask swabs his nose for a COVID test. Because three of the approximately 140 wildland firefighters who staged at Madras Elementary tested positive for COVID, Jefferson County Public Health quickly mobilized to provide tests for the crew. Flare ups caused the crews to return to the fire Monday. Public health planned to return to the site Aug. 3 to repeat tests for the firefighters who want the peace of mind. "We appreciate our partners at Jefferson County Public Health," says Kassidy Kern, public information officer for Central Oregon Fire. "It's an important piece of how we move forward to prevent the spread of this virus."

The highly contagious COVID delta variant on the rise throughout the country has invaded Jefferson County, too.

"Over 80% of the new cases seem to be linked to the new delta variant," says Jefferson County Public Health Director Michael Baker.

When Oregon's Governor Kate Brown lifted COVID restrictions at the end of June, the delta variant represented only 12% of coronavirus infections.

The timing couldn't be worse, Baker says.

People have let down their guard just as the highly contagious COVID delta variant takes off and people start gathering in large groups for county fairs, family picnics and community events.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State of Oregon are calling for masks again.

The seriousness of this new variant demands more protection for several reasons, says Baker.

-- Even vaccinated people can spread this variant, which had not been the case until delta came on the scene.

-- This variant infects a higher percentage of vaccinated people. Baker says close to 20% of the cases are "breakthrough," infecting vaccinated individuals, rather than 5% before the delta variant arrived.

-- Many vaccinated people who get the delta variant experience moderate symptoms, worse than mild symptoms previously seen in breakthrough cases.

-- Unvaccinated people infected with the delta variant experience more severe symptoms than with previous variants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinated and unvaccinated people should mask in public indoor settings. Vaccinated people who know they've been exposed to COVID should get tested and wear masks indoors for 14 days or until they get a negative test result.

The CDC and Oregon's Governor Brown call for masks in schools for students, staff and visitors regardless of vaccination.

Brown requires all state employees and visitors to indoor state agencies to wear face covering.

Baker is strategizing how to protect Jefferson County.

"The effect of a mandate had the opposite effect of what we'd hope locally," says Baker. "It probably led to more spread because simply telling somebody you have to do something the reaction was, 'I'm not doing that at all.'"

Baker hopes to draft a plan that has buy-in from community leaders and the people who live and work here.

More people in the county are getting vaccinated. Baker says a small but steady stream of people come into the public health department daily to get a shot.

Public health workers will provide vaccines at the Our Community in the Park Event at Sahalee Park Saturday, Aug. 7 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A team will again provide vaccines for anyone age 12 and older at the Central Oregon Community College Madras Campus on Aug. 20 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Baker sees the county edging ever closer to herd immunity. "Vaccine is the most efficient and effective way to end this pandemic. With a little higher uptake, we could stop all the masking and distancing and hygiene."

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