While Oregon Health Authority has confirmed a total of 316 cases of COVID-19 — including 11 fatalities — throughout the State of Oregon since the start of the outbreak, Hood River and Wasco counties had no cases to contribute to those rising numbers until this week.
Wasco County had its first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 confirmed the evening of March 25 out of the Oregon Veterans’ Home in The Dalles. The individual, a male resident in the 60-80 age range, had no known contact with a confirmed case and had not traveled to a country where the virus is circulating, so the case is being investigated as a community-acquired case, said an Oregon Health Authority press release. They have been in isolation since March 19.
“On behalf of North Central Public Health District, I would like to extend support to those affected by the diagnosis of COVID-19 in this beloved individual who served our country, and to commend the incredible work of the staff of Oregon Veterans’ Home in The Dalles. They have worked diligently and tirelessly to care for their residents,” said Dr. Miriam McDonell, health officer for North Central Public Health District.
“We are doing our utmost to combat the spread of this disease, and to provide information, resources and guidance to all in Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties, “ McDonell said. “In these times of uncertainty and hardship, I know the compassion and integrity of our residents will enable us to protect our most vulnerable, and provide help to any neighbors in need.”
Hood River County confirmed its first COVID-19 case Sunday afternoon.
The patient is an adult, county officials confirmed, but no further identifying information has been released due to concerns for the patient’s privacy. “As we have seen in other communities throughout the world, more cases will likely be identified in the coming weeks,” said the health department in an official release.
Hood River County Chair Mike Oates, City of Hood River Mayor Kate McBride, and City of Cascade Locks Mayor Tom Cramblett issued a joint statement Wednesday endorsing Gov. Kate Brown’s March 23 “Stay Home, Save Lives” order and calling residents to follow social distancing protocols.
“ALL OF US ARE RESPONSIBLE for limiting contacts and stopping person-to-person transmission of the virus. The sacrifices required of our local businesses have been significant and painful. We will only get through this and get everyone back to work by preventing the spread of this virus,” reads the statement. “…We will get through this together. Our spirits have been lifted by the generous and resilient spirit of our community during the past few weeks. Businesses have stepped up to provide meals, sail makers are sewing PPEs for medical providers, non-profits are creating new ways to help our most vulnerable citizens, and countless community members are reaching out to neighbors to offer support, assistance with errands and comfort during this difficult time. Stay safe.”
Visitors were also asked to stay away for the time being.
“We all love the Gorge — but this is not the time for you to visit,” reads the statement. “An influx of visitors creates an undue burden on our efforts to maintain social distancing and strains our supply channels, public safety resources and health care system. We look forward to hosting you again when things are back to normal.”
All county and city-owned parks and campgrounds are closed, including recreational staging areas on county forest land, and the City of Hood River has ordered all lodging stays for discretionary travel to cease immediately, with exceptions to currently registered guests, essential personnel requiring lodging for work, and individuals deemed vulnerable by Hood River County Health Department, including homeless individuals or individuals placed in quarantine due to the public health emergency.
“The city fully anticipates voluntary compliance while we all work to manage the COVID-19 outbreak,” said City Manager Rachael Fuller. “Enforcement will be handled on a case-by-case basis under the provisions outlined in the municipal code.” The City of Hood River set a special meeting for 10 a.m. on March 27 to officially approve the lodging restrictions (after press time; see hoodrivernews.com for updates).
Both the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge and the Bridge of the Gods have suspended cash handling and are not collecting cash tolls until further notice. While the Port of Cascade Locks is currently processing BreezeBy transactions and accepting cash tolls via mail, with plans to reassess the situation soon, all tolls on the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge are suspended until May 1 — which is when the port expects to have a license plate recognition tolling system online.
BreezeBy accounts will not be charged for tolls during this period, and BreezeBy users need to make no changes to their accounts or transponders.
The commission held at special meeting Tuesday, March 24 via remote video conference to discuss operational changes in response pandemic, where they unanimously approved to extend that initial seven-day toll suspension until they can begin tolling all non-BreezeBy customers via license plate recognition.
The system was initially developed as a way to enforce toll payments and fine repeat violators. The Oregon DMV would manage Oregon license plates, while Duncan Solutions would manage all out-of-state plates, including Washington plates — for a $3 processing fee per transaction.
To cover the cost of the fee, the port intends to raise the toll for non-BreezeBy customers to $5 until cash tolls can be accepted again.
“We designed this system for violators, not for an all-electronic tolling system,” said Chief Financial Officer Fred Kowell.
While the Oregon DMV system was ready to go Thursday, March 26, Duncan is not expected to be ready to start until May 1.
Due to financial concerns — waiving tolls through the end of April is expected to cost the Port of Hood River approximately $600,000 in revenue — the commissioners discussed the possibility of starting collecting tolls from Oregon license plates as soon as March 26.
“Charging some customers and not others is not acceptable to me at all,” said Commissioner Ben Sheppard. “I understand the financial implications, (but) that is not something we can do.”
“It may not come down to what’s fair to all people,” said Commissioner Hoby Streich. “…I think we’ve got to look past tomorrow: This is a whole new situation … The use of that ‘fair’ word concerns me a bit because it (the situation) is not fair. It’s just not fair.”
Ultimately, the commission unanimously decided to wait to resume tolling until all vehicles could be tolled fairly.
“If we have no toll for the month of April, and for the rest of March, then I think that is a gesture to the community that will be seen and will be appreciated,” said Commission Chair John Everitt, adding that they will have April to do community outreach concerning the increased toll and encourage residents to get onto the BreezeBy system, which enables motorists with transponders to pay tolls electronically via a prepaid account for a discounted cost: $1 each way.
The Dalles Bridge continues to operate toll-free, and officials have confirmed that there are no scheduled closures due to COVID-19 and that the bridge will remain open to motor vehicle traffic.