PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — A spike in COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County has been fueled in part by sick employees returning to as the economy there reopens without realizing they have the virus because their symptoms are mild, a local public health official told a newspaper.
The county’s largest workplace outbreak is at the Lamb Weston potato factory in Hermiston, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
The Oregon Health Authority reported 168 new confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 statewide on Monday, bringing the total to 10,395. There were no new deaths reported; 215 people have died statewide since the beginning of the pandemic.
A surge of cases — more than 630 in total — has hit rural Umatilla County hard. The county 210 miles (337 kilometers) east of Portland has 2% of the state’s population but has accounted for nearly one-fifth of Oregon’s case count over the past week.
It had 88 new cases one day last week alone and is now one of eight rural counties on a state “watch list” for worrisome virus spread.
Joseph Fiumara, Umatilla County’s public health director, said workplace infections are pushing the surge.
Employees with minor symptoms are returning to work to pay rent and support their families as businesses reopen, he said, and have unintentionally caused small outbreaks throughout the county.
“A lot of time, people just don’t think they have the virus,” Fiumara said. “They think it’s allergies. The symptoms are so minor that they go to work for a few days — slight runny nose or scratchy throat — then they go in and get tested and it comes back positive.”
State officials have so far reported 72 cases connected with Lamb Weston.
Umatilla County is getting help with contact tracing from the Oregon Health Authority, which has sent seven employees to the area.