2021 Pendleton Round-Up | Wednesday

Rodeo fans stand and remove their hats for the singing of the national anthem at the Pendleton Round-Up on Sept. 15.

Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday that she was “gravely concerned” about an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across Eastern Oregon with a common factor — the Pendleton Round-Up.

During a morning press call, Brown and state health officials gave an upbeat update on the state’s efforts against the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

Statewide, the COVID-19 surge of late summer and early fall “appears to have reached its peak,” said Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Tom Jeanne.

Brown hailed the state’s efforts in curbing new infections and hospitalizations as the state appeared to descend from a two-month spike in cases that set new pandemic records in Oregon.

It was only during a question-and-answer period at the end of the presentation that the Pendleton Round-Up spike was addressed as a sour point in the state’s progress.

The East Oregonian newspaper was the first to report Monday that the spike in COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County had been tied by local health officials to the annual rodeo event held Sept. 15-18.

The East Oregonian reported Tuesday that at least 68 COVID-19 cases have been traced back to the event and all its venues, up from 49 on Monday. Health officials across Eastern Oregon reported spikes in new cases, as did some in Eastern Washington and Idaho.

“That was a very large outdoor event,” Jeanne said of the Round-Up. “And there may not have been great compliance with masking there. We do expect to see some impact on cases from that, but it’s still too early to know the full extent of that.”

When pressed for her level of alarm amid the outbreak, Brown said first and foremost that she did not attend the Pendleton Round-Up because she was concerned about community spread.

Brown said she was well aware of the regional case spike “as a result of the Pendleton Round-Up,” but she said “it’s a little early,” noting that the Round-Up only ended a few weeks ago.

But the state’s own numbers, along with those from federal and nongovernment groups, painted a darker picture.

Oregon’s Hospital Capacity Web System , which tracks availability of hospital beds in the state, reported Monday that only 6 of 89 staffed adult intensive care unit beds located east of the Cascades were available.

The Pendleton Round-Up was canceled in 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns, but plans moved forward in early summer as Brown had dropped many restrictions on activities when COVID-19 cases appeared to bottom out at the end of June.

The event went off as scheduled despite a steep wave of cases linked to the highly contagious delta variant that swept across Oregon and filled state hospitals to capacity.

It’s still too early to say if cases foreshadow a new spike statewide, and health officials are watching closely for that possibility, Jeanne said.

Brown did not voice any regret in not overriding local officials’ decision to go ahead with the event. The Round-Up brought tens of thousands of people into an area with high infection rates and where just 51% of eligible adults were vaccinated. Many of the visitors came from areas in neighboring states where vaccination rates were also low.

Brown said the state had pressed officials across Oregon to encourage safety protocols like mask mandates. She pointed to other states where people are gathering en masse without a mandate.

“If you watch an Ohio football game in Ohio, those stadiums filled with 100,000 people. There is hardly a mask there,” Brown said. “That is very different here in Oregon.”

Prior to the mid-September event in Pendleton, Brown had said it was up to local officials to ensure the safety of the crowd. As for those who attended, she said they should mask up, follow social-distancing guidelines, but otherwise “let ‘er buck,” the Round-Up’s slogan.

But masks were few and far between throughout the Round-Up, even though organizers were offering thousands of them and had posted signs encouraging masking and distancing.

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara has said the number of COVID-19 cases tied to the Round-Up is an undercount, as many people who have tested positive, and are aware of others who have, are not cooperating with health officials. The reported cases include people who had COVID-19 symptoms prior to the event and yet still chose to come, officials have said.

Until this past week, COVID-19 cases had declined statewide for three consecutive weeks.

But state officials acknowledged in the press conference that cases had flat-lined over the previous week. They cited the Pendleton Round-Up outbreak specifically as one of several factors contributing to this trend.

Last week, Umatilla County reported 505 new COVID-19 cases, the county’s second-highest total since the pandemic started.

On Tuesday, the county’s average daily cases reached a new pandemic high, topping its previous record set in August, a month when more county residents died with COVID-19 than any other month — 22.

Brown said she was “very, very concerned,” adding that rural communities generally have less access to health care than counties in Western Oregon.

“Honestly, I’m very concerned about the capacity of health care workers themselves,” Brown said. “They have been working day in and day out for the last several weeks providing incredibly valuable patient care, life-saving care. And to have an additional surge on top of it is incredibly frustrating, I’m sure, for them after they have worked so hard.”

In August, Brown announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for teachers and health care workers with an Oct. 18 deadline, citing the alarming rise in cases driven by the delta variant.

Besides Wheeler County, more than a quarter of health care workers in every county in Eastern Oregon are unvaccinated, according to state data. All would be fired or forced to resign under Brown’s current mandate.

Last week, Umatilla County’s public health officer, Dr. Jon Hitzman, said if a COVID-19 surge were to follow the Pendleton Round-Up, its peak would occur right around the mandate’s deadline, placing a greater strain on hospitals that are already short-staffed.

In the press conference, Brown said she was “pushing forward on our vaccine requirement for health care workers because we have a really stark choice right now: a vaccinated workforce that can continue to work through our COVID surges like the one we’re likely to see again from the Pendleton Round-Up, or an unvaccinated workforce that’s depleted by quarantines and illness.”

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Bryce Dole is a reporter with the East

Oregonian. Gary A. Warner is a statehouse reporter for the Oregon Capital Bureau: gwarner@eomediagroup.com

(3) comments

Chicken_Hunter

No one says a word about the NFL. This is a non-story except it's in red country.

91184

Most NFL stadiums are in cities with higher vaccination rates than Eastern Oregon counties. Plus, most require both masks and prior vaccination or negative test to even enter. This event did not take those precautions.

Tom Pained

Does Oregon have an NFL team I'm not aware of? Another GOP snowflake with false equivalents and a sense of victimhood. Call the WAAAAAAABULENCE1

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