Lt. Rich Harriman, Malheur County Emergency Services director, leads a virtual meeting of the county's Covid task force last week in Vale. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Those gathered in April as part of Malheur County’s Covid Task Force covered routine matters at the start – assessing the county’s personal protective equipment stockpile and what help was coming from state agencies.

Then the talk turned to body bags.

Bob Dickinson, Malheur County Emergency Medical Services and Ambulance District director, reported he had prepared a list of local chapels regarding the number and storage of body bags and linked with a local funeral home about cremation of bodies.

Such tasks have occupied the group with prime duty to lead the community through the Covid crisis. They have met once a week in March to confront shifting and expanding needs across Malheur County as the pandemic spread and accelerated. As of Sunday, the county had recorded 1,417 people infected with the virus since March and 22 deaths.

Out of public view, the task force consists of representatives from the Oregon Department of Human Services, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, Valley Family Health Care, the Oregon Food Bank, Malheur County, Lifeways Behavioral Health, Four Rivers Cultural Center, the Bureau of Land Management, local city governments, non-profits and the Malheur Education Service District.

A core group of officials attended just about every meeting, while other people from different agencies came and went as the issues and needs changed.

Every aspect of the Covid outbreak was reviewed by the task force weekly.

The group, led by Lt. Rich Harriman, Malheur County Emergency Management director, responded to the crisis in various ways, according to interviews and a review of available minutes from the weekly sessions that were obtained by the Enterprise.

The group, for example, worked to create public service messaging about the virus and designed the countywide testing program held in different cities beginning in late spring, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

“It was very much a coordinated effort by the task force,” said Poe.

A review of the minutes of the group show the arc of the pandemic and highlight that some problems, such as the haphazard response by the public regarding the Covid threat, were evident early.

The April minutes recorded the task force’s discussion of the “mistrust of government, of the virus, and the system” and how that was leading to people disregarding the stay at home mandates during the spring.

Still, the weekly meetings provided steps to more readily contain the virus, said Poe.

“Having multiple sectors represented from both city and county health care and businesses makes it so we get different perspectives and feedback on things we may not have considered,” said Poe.

Poe said the task force also helped the county circulate information on how to avoid Covid and where citizens could seek services.

“Our task force really prioritized transparency and people can bring any question and we will follow up,” said Poe.

Task force minutes also show the need for more Covid testing was evident just a month into the pandemic and that the message to stay home if sick was not registering with the public.

“We are being put on the map for the escalation in cases and the percentage of positive tests. We need people to STAY HOME during their isolation and quarantine period,” Poe told the group April 2, according to the minutes.

The economic impact of the virus was also clear to the group in early April.

“This emergency is creating another emergency – the loss of income to businesses and individuals,” Adam Brown, Ontario City manager told the group as reported in the minutes.

The task force helped refine the local response to the virus, said Jane Padgett, community development coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services in Ontario and a member of the task force. The task force helped local leaders “talk through some decision points,” she said.

 “Like a social media campaign or what we will do next. Knowing, for instance, that there are certain messages that play better in rural communities than in a metro area,” said Padgett.

The task force was also helpful in other ways, said Padgett.

 “I had a foster home who did not have a regular doctor. Where do they go? Because I was part of the task force I was able to get an answer to them,” said Padgett.

As the Covid crisis deepened, the task force also helped coordinate and recruit more contact tracers and established a command post at Four Rivers Cultural Center to track cases.

“It’s worked out pretty good,” said Harriman.

Harriman said the task force also allowed dozens of officials and agencies to remain “on the same page” as the Covid pandemic continued to expand.

“The purpose was to get information out ­– not only what we are doing, and the precautions we want people to take, but the things each of us are doing,” said Harriman.

Harriman said the task force created a “tighter network” of government and non-government agencies.

“It definitely made things better for Malheur County in terms of us all having access to each other,” said Harriman.

Harriman said one of the most important aspects of the task force may be its impact on future emergencies.

“We all now have access to more people than we realized. It is almost like having a Rolodex just full of information,” said Harriman.

Now, he said, the county has a crisis-tested organization.

“Going forward with this team we can do it again. If we have to replicate the same thing for flooding or if a whole neighborhood needs to get evacuated I can pull the whole team together,” said Harriman.

Harriman said the task force faces challenges.

For example, he said, large gatherings are still occurring in Malheur County, despite the nearly constant message from the county such get-togethers are a bad idea.

“We are doing the best we can with the venues we have, like social media, media, but either folks are not believing it or just not heeding. Maybe we are not accessing the right people but we’d like to get a little more cooperation on the guidelines on how to avoid this,” said Harriman.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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