Cayuse Express

Andrew Whiteman rides Dusty Dan into the final horse exchange on Sept. 16 during the Indian Relay Race at the Pendleton Round-Up.

PENDLETON — Umatilla County health officials have traced nearly 180 COVID-19 cases to events that occurred during the week of the Pendleton Round-Up.

But the initial spike in cases that followed the week-long rodeo seem to be on a slight decline, said Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara.

“I’m hoping we’ve gotten past the initial bump,” Fiumara said after reporting the 179 cases. “Time will tell. It will be important for people who are sick to stay home.”

County officials were expecting to report a record-high COVID-19 case count last week, but as the week wore on, case counts began to lower. Last week’s total amounted to 487 cases, making it the county’s third most infectious week since the pandemic started.

It’s a positive sign after an alarming initial bump in cases, Fiumara said, but infection rates remain far higher than they were before the delta variant surge began in mid-July.

“It’s hard to be happy with cases dropping to 50 or 60 each day,” Fiumara said.

The decrease, Fiumara said, also doesn’t mean increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths won’t follow, as they have after previous pandemic surges.

“Both of our hospitals have seen cases and hospitalizations go up a little,” Fiumara said of Good Shepherd Medical Center, Hermiston, and CHI St. Anthony Hospital, Pendleton.

Harry Geller, St. Anthony’s president, said in an email that the hospital has seen a “significant increase” in patients admitted to their emergency department over the past two weeks. Staff are treating between 45 to 55 patients per day.

“During normal times, we average 32 patients per day,” Geller said.

As of Monday, Oct. 4, 10 out of the hospital’s 18 in patients had COVID-19

“With 25 inpatient beds set up and staffed, we have not yet gone over capacity,” Geller said. “We’ve come close on many occasions, but so far, so good.”

Unvaccinated account for 85% of cases from Round-Up

Data provided by the county health department late last week showed 85% of COVID-19 cases traced to the week-long rodeo were among unvaccinated people. Health officials have said some of the cases came from people who had COVID-19 symptoms prior to Round-Up but still chose to come.

The Round-Up required no proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 to enter the grounds. Had there been a requirement, Fiumara said some of the infection could have been avoided. He pointed to college football games in Oregon that have those requirements and have yet to see an outbreak.

There is no state rule that says organizers must require a proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test to hold an event.

Pendleton Round-Up General Manager Erika Patton did not return a call seeking comment prior to press time.

Cases stemming from the week-long rodeo have so far been reported in Oregon, Washington and Montana, as well as Umatilla, Jefferson, Morrow, Wallowa and Union counties, according to Mike Stensrud, an epidemiologist with Umatilla County Public Health. The vast majority of cases have been reported in Umatilla County — 166.

But the county still doesn’t know if the outbreak could be larger, as contact tracers have only been able to interview 81% of identified cases stemming from the Round-Up.

The county plans to disclose more data soon about where the cases occurred during Round-Up week to inform residents about their likelihood of exposure to the virus and and to inform future event planning.

Umatilla County has reported 13,596 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, according to county health data. In all, 129 county residents who have contracted the virus have died.

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