Grant County’s three COVID-19-related deaths in March were linked to an outbreak at a nursing home in Prairie City.

The Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report, which lists outbreaks at congregate care facilities that exceed three infections and at least one death, showed 31 infections were associated to the outbreak at Blue Mountain Care Center that began March 8 and remains active.

The report’s number includes all cases and deaths of residents, staff and close contacts of residents or staff who appear to have contracted the virus from them. Grant County Public Health Administrator Kimberly Lindsay said it is important to remember the number of cases and deaths include close contacts outside of the facility.

While the cases and deaths are significant regardless of where they occurred, she said she did not want the county to become “unnecessarily alarmed” by assuming from the report that all 31 infections were only from the 40-bed facility.

Derek Daly, the CEO of Blue Mountain Hospital District, which manages the care center, said that the facility had roughly 20 residents before the pandemic. However, since then, he said the admission rate had been sporadic because COVID-19 regulations on the state and federal levels have limited their ability to admit certain patients they could in the past.

Rebekah Rand, BMHD director of EMS, and Lori Lane, health information manager, noted in a March 23 press release that there was no way to determine definitively how the virus entered the care center. They said it could have been in-person visits, residents coming and going or community spread in Prairie City.

Daly told the Eagle he hopes staff members are following all the safety guidelines outside of work, but he cannot mandate what they do when they are off the clock.

“It would be my hope health care employees in the county are following guidelines in and outside of the building,” he said. “That’s what I try to portray outside of work, but obviously there’s personal freedom and liberties that we as an employer can’t get into mandating.”

Daly said BMHD could not, by law, require staff to get the vaccine as a condition of employment. Additionally, he said patient privacy laws do not allow the hospital district to share the care center staff’s vaccination rate.

Daly said, like other health care workers, care center employees were offered the vaccine in late December.

“They would have been some of the first people to be offered the vaccine in Grant County,” Daly said.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine requires a month between the first and second shots, and people are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose.

Daly said, while he cannot comment on the hospital district’s vaccination rate, the county’s vaccine rate remains among the lowest in the state.

He told the Eagle the conversation should be about the county’s collective mindset about the vaccine. With roughly a third of Grant County’s population over 65 and among the lowest in the state in vaccinations, the county faces a “challenging factor.”

He said the hospital district and health department could encourage people to get the vaccine, but their influence can only go so far. The vaccine, Daly said, is the key to getting through the rising number of infections in the county.

Daly said more hospital district employees have been inoculated recently. Initially, he said it was encouraging to see the number of people who got the vaccine, and now, more people are coming around to show interest in getting the shot because of the outbreak, but also because the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is now available.

“Many people have been impacted by this and in both direct and indirect ways,” he said. “I think some of those experiences have changed some people’s perceptions and changed some people’s interest in regards to the vaccine.”

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Steven Mitchell is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. Contact him at steven@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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