Umatilla County health officials say Pendleton's signature event likely drove a spike in coronavirus cases.

COURTESY PHOTO: BEN LONERGAN/EO MEDIA GROUP - Rodeo fans stand and remove their hats for the singing of the national anthem Sept. 15 at the Pendleton Round-Up.Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday, Sept. 28, that she was "gravely concerned" about an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across Eastern Oregon with a common factor — the Pendleton Round-Up.

During a morning telephone call with reporters, Brown and state health officials gave an upbeat update on the state's efforts against the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19. Statewide, the COVID-19 surge of late summer and early fall "appears to have reached its peak," said Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Tom Jeanne.

ocbBrown hailed the state's efforts in curbing new infections and hospitalizations as the state appeared to descend from a two-month spike in cases that set new pandemic records in Oregon. It was only during a question-and-answer period at the end of the presentation that the Pendleton Round-Up spike was addressed as a sour point in the state's progress.

The East Oregonian newspaper reported Monday, Sept. 27, that the spike in COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County had been tied by local health officials to the annual rodeo event held Sept. 15 to 18.

On Tuesday, the newspaper reported that at least 68 COVID-19 cases have been traced to the event and all its venues, up from 49 Monday. Health officials across Eastern Oregon reported spikes in new cases, as did some in eastern Washington and Idaho.

COURTESY PHOTO: KOIN 6 NEWS - Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist, said he expected to see an increase in COVID-19 cases in Eastern Oregon because of the annual Pendleton Round-Up."That was a very large outdoor event," Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist, said of the Round-Up. "And there may not have been great compliance with masking there. We do expect to see some impact on cases from that, but it's still too early to know the full extent of that."

When pressed for her level of alarm amid the outbreak, Brown said first and foremost that she did not attend the Pendleton Round-Up because she was concerned about community spread. Brown said she was well aware of the regional case spike "as a result of the Pendleton Round-Up," but she still said "it's a little early," noting that the Round-Up only ended a few weeks ago.

But the state's own numbers, along with those from federal and non-government groups, painted a darker picture. There were 424 COVID-19 deaths in Oregon in September as of Monday, making September the third deadliest month of the pandemic. September has already surpassed August's death toll and could exceed the January total of 476 by the end of the month on Thursday.

Oregon's Hospital Capacity Web System, which tracks availability of hospital beds in the state, reported Monday that only six of 89 staffed adult Intensive Care Unit beds located east of the Cascades were available.

Few masks at Round-Up

The Pendleton Round-Up was canceled in 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns, but plans moved forward in early summer as Brown had dropped many restrictions on activities when COVID-19 cases appeared to bottom out at the end of June.

The event went off as scheduled despite a steep wave of cases linked to the the highly contagious delta variant that swept across Oregon and filled state hospitals to capacity.

It's still too early to say if cases foreshadow a new spike statewide and health officials are watching closely for that possibility, Jeanne said.

Brown did not voice any regret in not overriding local officials' decision to go ahead with the event. The Round-Up brought tens of thousands of people into an area with high infection rates and where just 51% of eligible adults were vaccinated. Many of the visitors came from areas in neighboring states where vaccination rates were also low.

Brown said the state had pressed officials across Oregon to encourage safety protocols like mask mandates. She pointed to other states where people are gathering en masse without a mandate.

"If you watch an Ohio State football game in Ohio, those stadiums filled with 100,000 people, there is hardly a mask there," Brown said. "That is very different here in Oregon."

Prior to the mid-September event in Pendleton, Brown had said it was up to local officials to ensure the safety of the crowd. As for those who attended, she said they should mask up, follow social distancing guidelines, but otherwise "let 'er buck," the Round-Up's slogan.

But masks were few and far between throughout the Round-Up, even though organizers were offering thousands of them and had posted signs encouraging masking and distancing.

'Very, very concerned'

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara has said the number of COVID-19 cases tied to the Round-Up is an undercount, as many people who have tested positive, and are aware of others who have, are not cooperating with health officials. The reported cases include people who had COVID-19 symptoms prior to the event and yet still chose to come, officials have said.

"When so many people come together in one location, it is inevitable," Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said in an email. "The same thing has happened each time restrictions in Oregon have been lifted."

No county or state officials voiced any interest publicly in stopping the Pendleton Round-Up from happening. Until this past week, COVID-19 cases had declined statewide for three consecutive weeks.

But state officials acknowledged in the press conference that cases had flat-lined over the previous week. They cited the Pendleton Round-Up outbreak specifically as one of several factors contributing to this trend.

In late September, Umatilla County reported 505 new COVID-19 cases, the county's second-highest total since the pandemic started. On Tuesday, the county's average daily cases reached a new pandemic high, topping its previous record set in August, a month when more county residents died with COVID-19 than any other month — 22.

But public health directors in Umatilla County and the Umatilla Indian Reservation have voiced alarm in recent days about the speed with which the outbreak has unfolded. Umatilla County officials have said they are preparing for the surge to continue for several weeks. In response, tribal officials quickly reinstated pandemic restrictions that hearken back to those from the pandemic's early stages, including limited social gatherings.

Brown said she was "very, very concerned," adding that rural communities generally have less access to health care than counties in Western Oregon.

"Honestly, I'm very concerned about the capacity of health care workers themselves," Brown said. "They have been working day in and day out for the last several weeks providing incredibly valuable patient care, life-saving care. And to have an additional surge on top of it is incredibly frustrating, I'm sure, for them after they have worked so hard."

Alarming rise in cases

In August, Brown announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for teachers and health care workers with an Oct. 18 deadline, citing the alarming rise in cases driven by the delta variant. Besides Wheeler County, more than a quarter of health care workers in every county in Eastern Oregon county are unvaccinated, according to state data. All would be fired or forced to resign under Brown's current mandate.

In late September, Umatilla County's public health officer, Dr. Jon Hitzman, said if a COVID-19 surge were to follow the Pendleton Round-Up, its peak would occur right around the mandate's deadline, placing a greater strain on hospitals that are already short-staffed.

In the press conference, Brown said she was "pushing forward on our vaccine requirement for health care workers because we have a really stark choice right now: a vaccinated workforce that can continue to work through our COVID surges like the one we're likely to see again from the Pendleton Round-Up, or an unvaccinated workforce that's depleted by quarantines and illness."

Much of the briefing was taken up with mostly upbeat news of overall drop of statewide cases, approval of booster shots for some Pfizer vaccine recipients, and the usual requests for continued voluntary masking and social distancing.

The rising numbers in Umatilla County led the independent pandemic monitoring group COVID Act Now to raise the county's risk rating to its highest level: Extreme.

Since first appearing in Wuhan, China at the very end of 2019, COVID-19 has infected 232.6 million people worldwide and killed 4.76 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In the United States, 43.2 million cases have been reported and 692,058 have died.

Bryce Dole is a reporter with the East Oregonian. Gary A. Warner is a statehouse reporter for the Oregon Capital Bureau.

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