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COVID-19 surge overwhelms Jackson County contact tracers

Surging COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed the ability of Jackson County contact tracers to track and notify people who may have been exposed to the virus.

Contact tracers are having to prioritize the cases, Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said this week.

“We don’t have the resources when we get 60, 70 and 80 cases a day to contact trace and case investigate all of these back and get people isolated,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons now this is spreading way faster is because we can’t get to everybody to say, ‘Don’t be out and about and having contact because you’ve had a close contact or you could be positive.’”

Case investigators and contact tracers are mainly focused on cases involving patients and employees at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. They’re also tackling cases involving people who are 65 and older, plus displaced people in the community, Jordan said.

Thousands of people lost their homes in the Almeda and South Obenchain fires in September. Displaced people are doubling up with friends and family, living in hotels and trailers, and finding other living arrangements.

Jackson County Public Health officials said they’re also investigating workplace outbreaks, including at businesses that aren’t nursing homes, and cases tied to social gatherings.

Jordan said some people have become angry when they learned they were exposed to a person with COVID-19 but never received a contact tracing call from the county.

On the other side, some people diagnosed with COVID-19 have resisted contact tracing efforts and refuse to disclose where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, he said.

Jordan said hospitalizations are on the rise.

“Our capacity is being pushed,” he said of local hospitals.

Last week, Jackson and Josephine county hospitals had 13 COVID-19 patients. As of Tuesday this week, they had 34, the Oregon Health Authority said.

Between them, the two counties have 57 adult intensive care unit beds, and 41 were occupied Tuesday, OHA said.

Throughout the pandemic, Jordan said, many people — especially those at low risk — have been ignoring health and safety rules from the state that are meant to slow the spread of the virus. Their behavior is putting others at risk, especially vulnerable people such as senior citizens and people with certain medical conditions. Many of those vulnerable people are now landing in hospitals.

“This is being spread by people who are going about life as if COVID doesn’t exist,” Jordan said.

During a work session Tuesday, Jordan asked Jackson County commissioners Colleen Roberts, Rick Dyer and Bob Strosser if they would agree to do a public announcement voicing their support for mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.

“Would you be willing to put yourselves up front and say those are valuable and important tools?” Jordan asked commissioners.

Roberts, a frequent critic of state rules about the virus, resisted the idea.

“I’m not going to do that,” she said.

Roberts said wearing a mask should be a personal responsibility. She suggested the county put out a positive message instead, such as suggesting that people take Vitamin C and D to strengthen their immune systems.

“I’m not sure I can get behind any public messaging, but I would take a look at it,” she said.

Roberts questioned whether the local spike in cases is due to people repeatedly coming down with COVID-19.

Jordan said the cases represent new infections.

Roberts said she wants to show support for county staff battling the virus, but also for people and businesses that have been harmed by the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

“These restrictions have confined every healthy person out there,” Roberts said.

Dyer, also a critic of state regulations that have limited business activity and shut down most schools in Jackson County, balked at supporting a specific message promoting mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing.

He said he would favor a general message voicing his support for the efforts of county staff who are fighting the spread of the virus.

“I am supportive of what our public health department is putting forward as possible ways, potential ways to accomplish that,” Dyer said.

Jordan said that type of message wouldn’t be very clear to the public.

Strosser, who has been more supportive of mask-wearing and other safety measures, said commissioners should lead by example and voice their support for county staff and safety measures.

Across the nation, he said, COVID-19 has been politicized, when instead it should be treated as a public health issue.

“This is a health concern. It is a problem, and we need to get with it,” he said.

Strosser said county employees are working hard but often don’t feel supported by the board of commissioners.

“They are wearing out,” he said of employees.

During 2020, county employees have been doing triple duty — carrying out the county’s normal functions, taking the lead on the COVID-19 response and also coordinating cleanup and temporary housing efforts after the devastating Almeda and South Obenchain fires.

“Our people here are working their butts off,” Strosser said.

Public health officials have long warned that cases will rise in the fall and winter as people spend more time indoors. They have urged people to take safety precautions seriously.

In August, Jackson County saw new daily COVID-19 counts in the single digits, teens or 20s.

This month, the daily case count has been 36, 17, 70, 52, 67, 84, 78, 67, 41, and 56, followed by 50 new cases on Wednesday.

County public health officials say much of the surge in local cases is tied to people socializing in groups, including multi-generational family get-togethers. New cases linked to Halloween parties recently emerged. People who socialize in groups then spread the virus to their homes, workplaces, places of worship and other settings.

Cases have been rising statewide, with Oregon setting a daily record of 988 cases Nov. 7. Oregon reported 876 cases Wednesday.

Starting Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown put Jackson County and several other counties on a two-week pause on social activities that runs through Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

Indoor visits at long-term care facilities are on hold. Restaurants can have only 50 people inside, and gyms, bowling alleys and similar spaces for indoor activities must also stay under that cap.

The governor urged people to limit their social gatherings to no more than six people.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.