Increased Oregon COVID-19 Infections: Testing Not to Blame

  The Oregon Healthy Authority released a report Friday, June 19 confirming that COVID-19 is transmitting at higher rates across the state. This information debunks recent concerns from Oregonians that the numbers of positive cases are going up due to increased testing, instead of higher transmission rates.  

Percentage Positive for Infection Increases 

The number of Oregonians testing positive for COVID-19 each week has more than doubled since May 15. During the week of May 16-22, the positive test result rate was 1.6% and steadily increased in the following weeks, standing at 4.1% for the week of June 13-19. Such rates have not occurred in the state since mid-April.   

Though Oregon has been doing better than other areas of the United States, this increase is alarming to both public health officials and epidemiologists, as once the virus is truly established in an area, it can grow rapidly and be detrimental to citizens.   

Oregon is not the only state that is seeing a surge – of the 19 other states seeing increases, California, Arizona, Texas, South Carolina, and Florida have also broken daily records for new infections for the week of June 13-19.   

Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been criticized in the news for trying to downplay the increasing rates. During a June 15 roundtable discussion, Trump remarked, “If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” Pence has been urging state governors to tell citizens that higher numbers of positive cases are due to increased testing, not because of the virus transmitting more rapidly.  

As of Saturday, June 20, Oregon has now reported 6,750 known cases of COVID-19 and 189 fatalities from the virus.   

Contact Tracing Problems 

Public health officials are also concerned with how Oregonians are being exposed to the virus. For the week of June 8-14, contact tracers could not identify the source of infection for 36% of the new cases reported across the state. For the Portland area – in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties – 48% of new cases had no identifiable source of infection.  

Increased Hospitalizations 

Hospitalizations have correlated with increases in cases, surging by 82% since May 15. 92 confirmed COVID-19 patients are currently admitted. Despite this surge, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen remarked at a news conference on June 18 that Oregon still has a significant amount of ICU beds and ventilators available to help treat patients suffering from COVID-19. The metro area alone has 399 ventilators ready to go.   

Allen and the Oregon Health Authority’s recommendation to continue reopening Oregon is, in his words, “based on the totality of the evidence, not on each individual metric on its own.” The question since the beginning of the reopening process has not been if the state would see an increase in cases, but if Oregon can manage such risks. Allen believes that for Multnomah County and other counties that are moving forward, the answer is “yes.”  

Status of Reopening  

On Friday, June 19, Governor Kate Brown approved Multnomah County for Phase 1 of reopening, allowing dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms, malls, and nail salons to reopen, and gatherings of up to 25 people.   

On the same day that Brown approved the county for reopening, the county set a record of 49 new cases. Clackamas County and Washington County have also set new records, with 47 and 37 new infections reported, respectively  

Gov. Brown also gave the go-ahead to Polk, Marion, and Hood River counties to enter Phase 2, allowing them to reopen movie theaters and swimming pools, as well as allowing gatherings of up to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, while following social distancing rules. Brown has declared she will make an exception for the protests happening across the state for the murder of George Floyd and racial injustice.   

Where Infections are Occurring Matters  

Brown also said on June 18 that she doesn’t think the virus is spreading due to businesses like restaurants and hair salons reopening, but she did address the issue of community spread and the fact that contract tracers have not been able to identify a source for many of the new positive cases. She also highlighted the virus spreading in food processing plants, long-term care facilities, and some prisons and social gatherings, in which individuals often don’t wear masks or get too close to one another. A recent example is a Union County church, where worshippers stood directly next to one another. A total of 230 later tested positive for COVID-19.   

Beginning June 24, Brown will be requiring Oregonians in seven counties – Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Hood River, Lincoln, Marion, and Polk – to wear masks in indoor public places.   

If the number of patients hospitalized surges too rapidly, Brown said she will be abrogating the reopening process.   

By Cara Nixon