Report: Harney County has highest Covid-19 death rate on West Coast

A report published Monday shows that Harney’s death rate, 487 per 100,000 over the past two years, surpassed that of any other county in the state

By: - April 5, 2022 5:30 am
Harney County

Wind speeds hit 74 miles an hour in Harney County on April 4, 2022. The county had the highest Covid death rate in the West. (Rick Vetter)

Harney County had the highest Covid death rate on the West Coast, according to a report published on Monday.

A Poor People’s Pandemic Report 2022 shows that 36 people died in Harney County between February 2020 and this February, giving the county a death rate of 487 per 100,000 people. That’s higher than any other county in Oregon, Washington or California. 

Imperial County in southern California, where 860 people died over the two-year period, came next with 475 deaths per 100,000. The highest death rate in Washington state was in Columbia County in the west central part of the state. A total of 13 people died over the two-year span, giving it a rate of 326 deaths per 100,000, the report said.

The report, which relied on death data from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, was prepared by the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy group for low-income people, and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a nonprofit created by the United Nations to promote sustainable development. 

County rates

per 100,000 people

Harney County: 487

Josephine County: 354

Malheur County: 330

Douglas County: 318

Jefferson County: 316

Lake County: 292

Crook County: 279

Baker County: 273

Klamath County: 271

Union County: 265

Umatilla County: 255

Grant County: 250

Morrow County: 233

Wheeler County: 225

Tillamook County: 211

Gilliam County: 209

Coos County: 209

Jackson County: 204

Wasco County: 199

Wallowa County: 194

Curry County: 191

Marion County: 181

Hood River County: 180

Yamhill County: 175

Linn County: 175

Sherman County: 169

Columbia County: 141

Polk County: 137

Lincoln County: 132

Multnomah County: 125

Deschutes County: 122

Clackamas County: 121

Lane County: 116

Clatsop County: 94

Washington County: 81

Benton County: 63 

Overall, Oregon, Washington and California had among the lowest Covid death rates in the country. Galax County in Virginia had the highest rate at 1,134 per 100,000. Hancock County in Georgia came next with a death rate of 1,029 per 100,000. It was followed by Motley County in Texas, with 1,000 people dying per 100,000.

“The 10% of counties that had the highest death rates had death rates exceeding approximately 526 deaths per 100,000,” Alainna Lynch, senior research manager of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, told the Capital Chronicle in an email. 

The Oregon Health Authority said Oregon fared much better than many states because so many Oregonians wore masks and followed other Covid mandates. “Our Covid-19 strategy helped to save lives and kept cases and hospitalizations lower than in other states,” Rudy Owens, an agency spokesman, said in an email.

The report considered vaccination rates but said they didn’t explain variation in death rates. 

“Average vaccination rates are in general higher in the highest income counties than in the middle- and low-income counties, however these differences do not explain the whole variation in death rates in the later waves of the pandemic,” the report said.

Average vaccination rates are in general higher in the highest income counties than in the middle- and low-income counties, however these differences do not explain the whole variation in death rates in the later waves of the pandemic.

– A Poor People's Pandemic Report 2022

Poverty and demographics wound together as the common thread, the report said.

“Counties with the highest death rates are poorer than counties with lower death rates, with higher percentages of people of color,” the report said. “The 300+ counties with the highest death rates have a poverty rate of 45%, which is 1.5 times higher than in counties with lower death rates.”

The health authority said the pandemic made it clear that not everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy.

“This includes people of color, people with low incomes, people who identify as LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and people who live in rural areas of the state,” Owens said. “People in these communities face considerable barriers due to inequities in the social and physical infrastructures that affect health.”

Nic Calvin, director of Harney County’s Public Health Department, said poverty could have been a factor in the county’s death rate. 

“In terms of access to the vaccine, it’s completely free so we’ve tried to break down any barriers,” Calvin said. “Once a person got Covid, poverty could have been a factor” in the severity of the disease.

The report found that in Harney County, nearly 40% were living in poverty, defined as a maximum of $2,265 a month for one person and $4,625 a month for a family of four. 

In Josephine County, which had the second highest death rate in the state at 354 deaths per 100,000, nearly 44% were living in poverty, the report found. In Malheur County, which had the third highest death rate at 330 deaths per 100,000 in the two-year time span, the report found that 48% were living in poverty.

Calvin said Harney County’s low population – about 7,300 people – could have skewed the numbers. 

“We’re such a small population,” Calvin. “If we have an additional five people die, that puts our per-capita death rate higher.”

Other eastern Oregon counties

Other eastern Oregon counties also have low populations, and among the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Lake County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, with 46% of adults receiving one dose, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Malheur, Grant, Gilliam and Baker come next in that order. Harney County has the sixth lowest rate: 56% of adults have had at least one dose. 

“Like most eastern Oregon counties, there was some resistance to getting vaccinated due to the political nature of the vaccine,” Calvin said. “We have had vaccinations available every day basically since the vaccine came out.”

The Oregon Health Authority, which considers equity a top priority, has acknowledged that racial and ethnic minorities had the lowest vaccination rates in the first half of 2021. But the agency said it has since narrowed the difference between minorities and whites. About 67% of adult Hispanics have had one dose compared with 83% of whites, according to July 1, 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census bureau. The discrepancy is even bigger when looking at booster shots. About 28% of Hispanics have had one booster shot compared with 49% for whites.

The state’s most populous counties, largely in the Willamette Valley, all had relatively low poverty rates, like Deschutes, and low deaths rates. Benton County, which had the lowest death rate in the state at 63 deaths per 100,000, had a poverty rate of 33%, comparable to most other Willamette Valley counties.

Race was a factor in high rates in counties across the county, the report said, but it appeared to be less relevant in Oregon, where 87% of the population is white. For example, in Harney County only 5% were Hispanic, and in Josephine County, with the second highest death rate, 7% of the population was Hispanic. That compared with Malheur County, where 34% were Hispanic. 

The groups behind the report hope it will rally members of Congress and President Joe Biden to do more to help poor people. 

The findings of this report reveal neglect, and sometimes intentional decisions, to not focus on the poor,” said Bishop William Barber II, president of the nonprofit advocacy group, Repairers of the Breach. “It is further evidence why we have called for the president to meet, at the White House, with a diverse delegation of poor and low-wealth people, religious leaders and economists to put addressing poverty and low wealth front and center.”

 

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.

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