Health leaders in Malheur County faced a number of challenges to stopping the spread of Covid. (The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Before 22 people were dead, before more than 1,000 residents in Malheur County were sick from the Covid virus, before Sarah Poe received emails attacking pandemic statistics, she believed advice from doctors and scientists was enough for the public to reduce the impact of the pandemic.

In March, as the threat of the virus loomed, Poe, the director of the Malheur County Health Department, felt the public proclamations on how to mitigate the virus were easy to understand and execute.

“I did have faith in those things,” said Poe.

Now the county is awash in the virus, many people don’t believe what they see and hear about Covid and the crucial message about how to avoid the virus often seems to disappear inside the white noise of politics, conspiracy theories, good intentions and a dismissive attitude by some.

“The problem is we didn’t even follow the White House’s own guidance. The CDC and the White House had very doable measures,” said Poe.

The scenario isn’t how Poe expected this historical event to play out.

That’s because, she said, crucial mistakes were made early at the state and national level that conspired to confuse the public and create doubt.

“What we should have done from the beginning was to make sure we have virology experts, or public health experts, take the lead. But when we have such a divisive political voice undermining the public health message it becomes very confusing,” said Poe.

Poe agrees there was no way in March to predict the severity of the virus.

“But the problem is there was a lot of misinformation and there still is,” said Poe.

The incorrect information made the response by health officials to the virus more complicated.

“It means people are not always making safe decisions with the correct information but rather responding politically. Because it was downplayed so much by many leaders on all levels, people were putting themselves and their families at risk,” said Poe.

Poe, along with members of the county’s Covid task force, recognized early the main health message – to social distance, wear a face mask and avoid large gatherings – was not getting through to everyone.

“People were approaching this from the way it impacted them personally. I think it was the people who were not, and are not, impacted personally who are often not taking it seriously enough,” said Poe.

The response to that challenge was both simple and direct, said Poe. The health department, she said, decided to use credible sources to deliver information on Covid, provide as much of that information as possible and be transparent.

The aim, she said, was to “build trust and authority.”

Over the summer and into a surge of cases that occurred in July, the message from the health department remained stable: stay home if sick, wear a face mask, avoid large gatherings and social distance. Poe said the health department also reached out to churches and school districts to “try and make sure information is getting out to people in a variety of ways.”

“I have tried to put more and more information on our website and we are working closely with health care providers and congregate care providers in the county,” said Poe. 

Education, Poe said, remains a big piece of the Covid response.

“We follow up on all complaints. Often times we get complaints from a concerned citizen who observes precautions are not being followed in a business or a social gathering. We educate to make sure people understand what the state orders are,” said Poe.

Poe said the goal is not to punish but to help residents and businesses, “to make sure they have the tools they need. Our goal is to support the business.”

One example of a precise response to a Covid violation occurred earlier in the summer when people gathered in large groups in city parks.

“We were able to follow up with the city of Ontario and the city worked with us and they taped off the shelters in the park,” said Poe.

How effective were the measures? Poe said she isn’t sure.

 “I can’t prove a negative. I can’t prove how much worse it could have been if we did nothing. I do think we have a lot of people who pay attention to our message and our health care providers are very helpful in educating people. I think a majority of our county is trying hard to do the right thing,” said Poe.

Poe said the virus proved to be not only a health care problem but also “unveiled so many disparities and chronic hardships.”

“It became not just an issue of how to manage if you are exposed but one of child care and jobs and losing family members or loved ones that are sick for a long time,” said Poe.

The county’s straightforward message to avoid or stop Covid had limits, she said.

“There are a lot of different media outlets putting out not clear or consistent messaging that undermine what public health is doing. In this day and age, people have access to a lot of news and don’t always listen to reputable sources,” said Poe.

Another limitation, said Poe, is the different approaches Idaho and Oregon established to stifle Covid.

Idaho adopted a regional strategy instead of statewide policies and delegated authority to fight the virus down to the counties. Oregon, meanwhile, employed statewide mandates to fight the virus. Those different standards create confusion, said Poe.

“That’s been difficult,” said Poe. “A lot of our media comes from Idaho, which is going to have a different message about state guidelines.”

Now at the six-month mark, Poe said the Covid crisis produced insights on how to manage a future where the pandemic endures.

“We need people to listen. This virus is extremely infectious and has a long incubation period,” said Poe.

Also, Poe said, adhering to the social distancing measures works.

“They lower the risk,” said Poe.

Another insight, she said, is the entire community must be involved in the effort to stop Covid.

“This only goes on longer the more cases we have. Our cases match what our public is doing. So, we have to do all we can to bring these cases down,” said Poe.

Poe said she is worried the window to get ahead of the Covid outbreak may close soon.

“I am very concerned we’ve squandered the time we had in March where we could have reduced our risk,” said Poe.

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

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