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

Baker County might have met one of the two requirements to move down from extreme to high on the state’s COVID-19 risk level starting Friday, Jan. 29.

But though the county’s rate of new virus cases has slowed substantially over the past nine days, its test positivity rate might keep the county in the extreme-risk category for two more weeks.

Baker County, with 16,800 residents, is in the “medium” group, those with a population between 15,000 and 30,000.

The risk level for medium-size counties is based on two statistics. Those are the number of new cases over a two-week period, and the test positivity rate during that period. If Baker County has either 60 or more new cases during the most recent measuring period — Jan. 10-23 — or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher, it will remain at extreme risk. That category includes the most stringent restrictions on businesses, including a ban on indoor dining at restaurants, and the closure of fitness centers and gyms, theaters and museums.

County Commissioner Mark Bennett said Monday afternoon, Jan. 25, that the state’s preliminary figures for Baker County are 66 new cases and a positivity rate of 14.6%. Either would keep the county in the extreme category.

But Bennett said the county’s tally for new cases is 54, including 15 between Jan. 16-24. That’s the slowest rate of new cases in the county since October 2020. He suspects the discrepancy is due to state officials failing to deduct from the county’s total any cases involving inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. That’s what happened in December, when state officials initially announced that Baker County would stay in the extreme category, but the next day corrected that decision, saying they had failed to deduct infections among Powder River inmates.

But even if the state for the second time failed to account for COVID-19 cases at the prison, the county’s positivity rate would keep the county in the extreme category from Jan. 29 through Feb. 11.

Bennett said he has also asked state officials to explain what he sees as discrepancies in the county’s test positivity rate. As of Monday afternoon, Bennett said, state officials had not responded.

Bennett cited statistics from the Oregon Health Authority that show both the county’s test positivity rate, and its number of positive tests.

As an example, the OHA website lists the county as having 125 positive tests for the period Jan. 10-21. Yet the county reported 65 new COVID-19 cases — including at least nine Powder River inmates — during that period.

“We do not understand it,” Bennett said of the discrepancy between numbers. “Something is skewed.”

Bennett said he has also pointed out to state officials that the county’s positivity rate almost certainly would have been lower had OHA not canceled a free testing clinic scheduled for Jan. 20. Bennett said state officials told him testing clinics were canceled across the state that day, Inauguration Day, due to security concerns about potential protests. During two previous clinics in Baker City, the positivity rate was 1.8%.

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