Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Benton County has seen 76 cases and 5 of Oregon’s 202 coronavirus deaths, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Neighboring Polk County, which had ten thousand fewer residents than Benton County in 2010, has seen 134 cases and 12 deaths. Looking at both the coronavirus cases and deaths in all of the surrounding counties, Benton has somehow fared better than its neighbors, even when adjusting for population size.
To Charlie Fautin, the Interim Co-Director of the Benton County Health Department, Benton County’s ability to keep its case numbers down is largely due to residents being “more protective of one another, as far as keeping personal distance and wearing masks,” as well as the ability of many residents employed in the County’s tech and education sectors to work from home.
Of course, many of the college students who call the county home for most of the year either left when classes first moved online or once classes ended for the summer, reducing the number of people county residents might bump into at the grocery store or share a sidewalk with.
Fautin acknowledged other aspects of Benton County’s population might also be playing a role.
“We have always had a very health conscious population,” Fautin said, citing the county’s lower obesity and tobacco use rates than the surrounding counties. According to Data USA, Benton County’s tobacco use rate is only slightly lower than its neighbors (14% compared to 16.4% in Linn County), but its obesity rate (24.4%) is substantially lower than that of Linn (35.6%), Polk (34%), and Lincoln (30%) counties.
Reopening Shocks Possible
Even with these advantages and fewer cases, Fautin said Benton County residents should not relax. “We are sick and tired of not being close together, to our friends and loved ones,” Fautin said, but there is still no vaccine “and COVID-19 is not at all tired of making us sick.”
While Benton County and other counties managed to “flatten the curve” after two months of quarantine, Peter Banwarth, an epidemiologist and public health data scientist at the Benton County Health Department, told the Daily Barometer in late May there is a possibility of “shocks to the system” as the community begins to reopen. Benton County has seen 7 new cases since June 22, and the statewide death toll has increased by 10 since then.
Oregon, Fewest ICU Beds Nationwide
In a state that only had 663 ICU beds in March and the lowest rate of hospital beds per capita in the country (1.6 hospital beds per 1,000 residents), these “shocks” have a greater chance of overwhelming Oregon’s health care system.
The Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center (GSRMC), which has 188 beds, is the only hospital in Benton County, and in many instances also serves Linn and Lincoln counties . In a written statement, Good Samaritan said it currently has 38 ICU beds across its five hospitals and 12 ICU beds at the GSRMC.
While hospital beds filling up may seem to be a good measure of when the virus is about to overwhelm a hospital, Fautin cautioned that it isn’t the overall number of cases, but “how fast they come” and “who becomes severely ill.” Whether the GSRMC runs out of beds and is forced to divert patients to other hospitals largely depends on the intensity of the pandemic, which may rise as businesses reopen and residents try to return to some kind of social normalcy.
Corvallis’ ICU Capacity Limited
Thus far in the pandemic, Good Samaritan claims it has not needed to acquire more ICU beds, but according to Fautin, “one thing to remember is our hospital (GSRMC) comes close to or exceeds capacity in a bad flu year.”
Fautin advises Benton County residents to continue to limit their interaction with groups of people, and avoid larger groups like the one that attended the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Union County, which became an outbreak hotspot, altogether.
One of COVID-19’s characteristics is that it can infect many more people through “super spreaders.” “Everyone who is infected can spread it,” said Fautin, “but, for whatever reason, some people shed a lot more virus and they are capable of infecting a lot more people than most people are. And the more people those folks are around, the more disease you get.”
“At this point, the virus is still very much in the driver’s seat,” Fautin added.
By Henry Latourette Miller