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A COVID-19 particle is pictured in this image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

A recent change to Oregon’s COVID-19 risk level system should allow Baker County to remain at the lowest level, with the least severe restrictions, through most of April even though the county’s case rate has nearly tripled in the past two weeks.

Oregon’s four-tier system imposes restrictions on businesses and events based on the number of new virus cases and the test positivity rate in their county.

Risk levels are subject to change every two weeks, based on statistics from the previous two-week measuring period. Baker County has been in the lowest of the risk levels since March 26.

The current measuring period ends today, April 3, and will determine counties’ risk levels starting April 9.

Through Thursday, April 1, Baker County had recorded 65 new cases during the current measuring period. Prior to the recent change, that number of new cases would have pushed the county from the lowest risk level to the highest (known as “extreme”) starting April 9.

However, in March Gov. Kate Brown announced that a two-week “caution period” would apply for counties in certain situations.

To qualify for the caution period, a county must dropped to a lower risk level during the previous two-week period.

Baker County did so, with 24 cases from March 7-20, which moved the county from the moderate risk to the lowest risk.

Counties that meet that requirement, but then have enough new cases during the next two-week period that they previously would have moved to a higher risk level, are instead given a two-week reprieve, during which they remain at their current risk level.

Those counties’ risk levels will then be based on case counts and positivity rates during the two-week caution period.

Here’s what that means for Baker County:

Rather than jumping to extreme risk on April 9, the county starts the two-week caution period on Sunday, April 4. The county will remain at the lowest risk through April 22. Its risk level starting April 23 will be based on its case count and positivity rate during the caution period, April 4-17.

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett, the county’s incident commander since the start of the pandemic, said he’s glad for the two-week caution period.

The alternative — the county moving to extreme risk for the first time since Feb. 4 — would have been a major blow to already beleaguered businesses, Bennett said.

The differences in restrictions between the lowest risk and extreme are, well, extreme.

For instance, with Baker County at the lowest risk, restaurants and bars can have indoor dining up to 50% of capacity.

For counties at extreme risk, indoor dining is prohibited.

Capacity for outdoor events, including high school sports, is 300 for counties at the lowest risk, and 50 for counties at extreme risk.

Recent surge in cases

The increase in cases since March 23 pushed March’s total to 97, which is 27 more than the county reported during February (with three fewer days).

March’s daily average was 3.1 cases per day, compared with 2.6 in February.

Previous monthly totals and daily averages:

• January: 106 — 3.4/day

• December: 196 — 6.3/day

• November: 141 — 4.7/day

Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, said the trend over the past dozen days is troubling.

We’re really concerned this jump in cases could qualify us for ‘extreme risk’ again, which will have a huge impact on our businesses and their employees,” Staten said on Friday, April 2. “We really need to get our case numbers down for the sake of our public’s health and our businesses. Please make very careful choices about gatherings and other activities where the virus can spread- it’s without a doubt on the rise in our community.”

Staten said earlier in the week that the recent cases are “mostly due to small groups of connected cases tied to social gatherings” rather than to a single large outbreak.

Of the 62 cases the county recorded from March 23 through April 2, the largest share — about 24% — are people in their 40s, while the second-largest — about 21% — are in their 70s, Staten said.

The Health Department didn’t have a percentage breakdown for other age groups.

“We’re seeing cases spread across all ages, but people in their 40s and their 70s have been most affected over the last week and a half,” Staten said.

She said Health Department officials don’t know of any situations in which a county resident who is partially or fully vaccinated has tested positive.

The county did not have a breakdown of how many of the 62 cases since March 23 involve people who tested positive, and how many are what OHA designates as “presumptive” cases — people who are identified through contact tracing as a close contact of someone who tested positive, and who have had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but who have not tested positive.

According to OHA statistics, Baker County reported 19 positive tests (and 161 negative tests) from March 21-27, and 16 positive tests (and 396 negative tests) from March 28 through April 1. Those numbers include only positive tests, not presumptive cases.

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