Statewide COVID rates slowly declining

PORTLAND —State health officials say a 10 percent reduction in COVID-19 transmission statewide could have kids back into classrooms before the end of the year.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen and State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger held their regular weekly call with reporters on Thursday to discuss the spread of COVID-19 in the state and health metrics that must be met to resume on-site K-12 instruction.

“Every week, we tell you to wear a mask, to practice physical distancing, to wash your hands, to limit gatherings and to take other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Allen said. “And we do that not just so we can reopen schools … and not just to prevent our hospitals from being overburdened, but also because we understand the ripple effect this virus has in our communities.”

Allen said that earlier this week, the health authority reported the death of a 37-year-old with no known underlying conditions, a reminder of “how dangerous this virus is to each and every one of us.”

The health authority director said cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all declined in recent weeks, but while numbers indicate progress in reducing spread, it has not yet been reduced enough to have kids back in school buildings. To safely achieve that goal, the health authority says the statewide weekly positivity rate — the percentage of total tests that are confirmed positive — must be 5 percent or lower, and weekly cases must be 10 per 100,000 or less. Oregon’s current positivity rate is 5.1 percent, and there are about 40 cases per 100,000 people.

Those metrics must also be met at the county level to resume on-site classes for all grades, but K-3 students can be brought back into schools where there are 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 people. Sidelinger said there were only 15 counties that currently meet that metric, Lincoln County not among them, and three counties that would qualify to have in-person class K-12. 

Gov. Kate Brown said in a press conference Aug. 24 that, at the current replication rate, it would take more than 200 days to get below the 10 per 100,000 threshold. Sidelinger said Thursday a 10 percent reduction in transmission could be enough to achieve a replication rate of 0.75 — the rate of spread needed to meet metrics by later this fall.

Seeking to highlight the unforeseeable consequences of the failure to be vigilant, the epidemiologist recounted two incidents from earlier in the summer. In one instance, two people at a family party of 10 did not then have symptoms but were likely infectious. “In total, those two cases led to 20 reported cases spread across 10 households,” Sidelinger said, at least two of whom worked with vulnerable populations, and one of whom lived in a multigenerational household with family members who have high-risk medical conditions. “So even if those who went to the party may not have considered themselves at a high risk for complications, many of the people who got sick potentially exposed individuals who are more vulnerable to complications,” the epidemiologist said.

In another instance, Sidelinger said, four likely infected people among nearly 20 who rented a beach house for a three-day celebration did not have any symptoms during the trip, but 12 people in the party did eventually get sick, and they’re linked to five workplace outbreaks comprising more than 300 cases so far. 

“This is why we take actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to protect our families, our friends, our coworkers and neighbors. And, as we approach fall, another focus is creating an environment where it is safe for students and staff to return to school,” Sidelinger said. 

He said the health authority would be posting updated watch list data later in the day based on sporadic cases — those not traced to a known source — during the last two weeks. “With this data, we expect the governor will make an announcement on moving counties on the watch list,” he said. On July 3, Lincoln County was placed on the watch list of counties experiencing a high rate of sporadic spread and subject to more attention from the health authority. The governor removed it from the watch list one month later, and she recently approved its application to enter phase two of reopening, citing local success in containing infections.