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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 modest rise in Baker County’s rate of COVID-19 cases this week has pushed the county close to moving up one level on the state’s risk level starting Feb. 26.

But Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett said he and other county administrators continue to lobby state officials to make exceptions for counties that only slightly exceed risk level thresholds.

“We’re asking for a little broader view if it’s really close,” Bennett said on Friday morning, Feb. 19.

Baker County recorded six new cases on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

That was the highest one-day total in more than a month. There were 11 new cases on Jan. 15. Since then the county has averaged slightly fewer than two cases per day. Prior to Wednesday’s six cases, the highest one-day total was five cases, on Feb. 2. The county recorded no new cases on 10 days over the past 34 days, including Feb. 13 and 14.

But over the following four days the county had 14 new cases.

Baker County dropped to lower risk, the least restrictive of the Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) four-level system, on Feb. 12.

The county will stay at that level for at least two weeks, as the risk levels are updated every two weeks.

Risk levels for the next two-week period, Feb. 26 through March 11, will be based on COVID-19 statistics for the period Feb. 7-20.

As a medium-population county, Baker’s risk level is based on two measurements:

• New cases from Feb. 7-20.

To stay in the lower-risk level, which has the least-severe restrictions on businesses and other activities, the county must have fewer than 30 new cases during that period.

As of Thursday, Feb. 18, the county’s total was 23 cases. That means the county, to stay in the lower-risk level, could have no more than six new cases total from Friday and Saturday.

• Percentage of positive tests from Feb. 7-20.

To stay in the lower-risk level, the county needs to have a positivity rate of less than 5%.

Bennett said that as of Thursday, the county’s positivity rate for the measuring period was about 3.9%.

He said county officials have asked state officials to consider more than just the raw numbers and percentages in deciding risk levels.

Bennett said Matt Scarfo, a commissioner in Union County, has raised the situation in which, for instance, five members of a single household all test positive.

Bennett said he agrees with Scarfo that in such instances, if counting all five of those cases would push a county into a higher risk level, state officials should make an exception because a single house, if all its members quarantine, would pose little to no risk of further spreading the virus.

State officials already take a similar approach with infections among inmates at state prisons.

The state doesn’t consider those cases in calculating the county’s risk level because inmates don’t circulate in the community.

Specifically with test positivity rates, Bennett said he hopes state officials understand that as Baker and other counties have shifted their focus from testing to vaccinating residents against COVID-19, fewer people are being tested.

He said the county can’t schedule both vaccination clinics — 315 people received their first dose during an event at Baker High School on Feb. 12 — and large testing clinics.

The county’s number of tests dropped from 489 the week of Jan. 24, to 284, 282 and 99 the following three weeks.

The concern, Bennett said, is that if the county reverts to the situation the prevailed for much of the pandemic — with most of the people being tested those who have symptoms — the county’s positivity rate is certain to increase.

But that trend doesn’t necessarily mean the virus is spreading more rapidly, Bennett said.

Baker County officials have asked, to no avail thus far, to have the county moved from the medium-population group — from 15,000 to 29,999 — to the smallest population group, counties with fewer than 15,000 residents.

Baker County has the smallest population, at about 16,800, of the medium-size counties.

The difference is significant — for the smallest counties, only the number of new cases is used to determine their risk level.

If Baker County were moved to that group, its test positivity rate would no longer affect its risk level.

If the county doesn’t meet the standards to stay at lower risk, it likely would move to the medium-risk category for the period Feb. 26-March 11.

This would have some effect on restaurants and bars, which under the lower risk can have indoor dining up to 50% of capacity, and up to eight people per table. Such businesses can stay open until midnight.

Under moderate-risk rules, indoor dining could continue up to 50% of capacity, but there would also be a limit of 100 people total, including staff, if that’s a lower number than the 50% of capacity. The limit per table would drop to six, and businesses would have to close at 11 p.m. rather than midnight.

The differences between lower and moderate risk limits are similar for gyms, theaters and museums. The occupancy limit would remain at 50% for those venues, but with the additional limit of 100 people total.

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