OHA downplayed risk of local COVID-19 outbreak


NEWPORT — The Oregon Health Authority originally characterized the second largest workplace outbreak in the state — now 127 people working at or connected to Pacific Seafood in Newport, according to the authority’s latest report — as a low risk to the general public.

Three days after the outbreak was first announced, Lincoln County Public Health said it was investigating six more potential workplace outbreaks, and though they have drastically increased their number of case investigators and contact tracers, language barriers and cultural differences have complicated efforts beyond just tracking down contacts — some confirmed cases haven’t been self-isolating because they are asymptomatic.

As Oregon Public Broadcasting first reported on Thursday, some of those who tested positive speak an indigenous Guatemalan dialect, and the health department doesn’t have any translators who speak it. Director Rebecca Austen told OPB some of those people were still going out in the community because they do not feel sick. “There is a bit of a crisis right now. Once we learn that, we need to be able to convey to them, ‘You don’t feel sick, but you are carrying the virus,’” she said.

In a press conference on Monday, the health authority’s communicable disease chief, Dr. Paul Cieslak, hedged slightly but essentially doubled down on the authority’s initial statement. “We hope to minimize the risk by having identified the folks who have the virus … but I can’t tell you that there is no risk. There will be some risk,” Cieslak said.

Susan Trachsel, public information officer for the county health department, said Lincoln County Public Health doesn’t view the situation as low risk. “We’re concerned because it’s not like a big city where a plant is far removed, where they bring in people and they house them all together,” Trachsel said. “These are our people. These are our family, friends and neighbors, and we all interact.”

She said they’d just been able to hire a translator who could speak the Guatemalan dialect — Mam — and conducted an online video chat in that language and in Spanish to get the word to the community that even asymptomatic people need to self isolate. She said language isn’t the only barrier to public health messaging.

“It’s not just our Mam community and our Spanish-speaking community, we have English-speaking people who don’t care — you see that, you see people who say ‘it’s no big deal, it’s just the flu,‘” Trachsel said. “It may not cause significant damage to several individuals, but it could hurt a bunch of people and overwhelm our system, and we’re doing everything we can to keep that from happening,” she said.

Already, one Pacific Seafood worker has been hospitalized in Lincoln City due to the virus, and their condition worsened enough that they were transferred to Corvallis for a higher level of care.

The News-Times emailed the Oregon Health Authority to ask if it would revise its low risk assessment in light of the current situation, and we also asked what assistance the authority was providing the local health department. The health authority had not responded to those questions as of press time.

Lincoln County Public Health is still in the midst of the tedious task of case investigation for 124 positive fish plant workers. They had completed about 50 percent of those investigations as of Wednesday evening, Trachsel said.

According to the latest weekly COVID-19 report from the health authority, 144 confirmed COVID-19 cases reside in Newport’s ZIP code — a positivity rate of close to 1.5 percent for the city. There are between one and nine cases in South Beach, Depoe Bay, Waldport and Lincoln City, and none in Yachats or Toledo ZIP codes.

Lincoln County Public Health announced seven new cases Thursday — four people connected to an outbreak — two of them children — one case of community spread, and two cases for which no information other than age was given. One of those, a person in their 70s, was hospitalized. There are now 170 confirmed cases in Lincoln County.

The 178 cases reported statewide by the health authority on Thursday represented Oregon’s highest daily case count yet.

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