Gov. Kate Brown ordered the cancellation of large public gatherings in Oregon and declared that the state needs to brace for an epidemic of thousands of coronavirus cases.
The order, which Brown outlined at a press conference on Thursday, flanked by city and county leaders, makes her the first governor nationwide to announce a statewide ban on large gatherings.
Health officials are scrambling to keep the United States from a public health disaster, with the potential for overflowing emergency rooms, overwhelmed health care providers and a shortage of supplies in face of the fast-moving virus.
Worldwide, the virus has spread to nearly 128,000 people and killed more than 4,700, according to a tracking map by Johns Hopkins University. China has suffered the most cases, causing health authorities there to enact draconian social-distancing measures.
Brown said she hopes that by restricting large gatherings that public health officials can refocus their attention away from following each case and tracking down all of their contacts to trying to prevent new infections, especially in vulnerable people like the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. The ban is in place for four weeks, a timeline that could change as officials monitor the epidemic.
“We have never seen anything like this in our lifetime,” Brown said.
At the press conference, which was held in the Oregon Public Health Division’s building in Northeast Portland, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency, a move that follows a similar declaration by Brown this weekend. Multnomah County has also declared a state of emergency. The declarations unleash resources and allow officials to take economic steps like not shutting off utilities for nonpayment.
The ban, effectively immediately, applies to areas in which it’s impossible to stand three feet from another person.
Brown called on schools to cancel all nonessential gatherings and activities, including group parent meetings, field trips and competitions. Yet public schools will be allowed to stay open, though the University of Oregon and Oregon State University announced Wednesday they are switching to remote classes and exams.
Brown said workplaces should implement distancing measures for employees so that they’re not exposed to contaminated by someone’s cough or sneeze.
“We find ourselves in an unprecedented public health crisis,” Brown said. “Coronavirus is in our communities we should be prepared for thousands of cases in Oregon.”
Though Oregon is the first state in the country to have a statewide ban on large gatherings, events have been canceled across the country. Washington state has banned them in select Seattle-area counties and San Francisco, California has enacted a city ban. Ohio is likely to announce a ban on large social gatherings as well.
“Now we are focused on preventing the worst impacts of a mass outbreak from coming to pass,” Brown said. “We must act now to protect those who are most vulnerable.”
She said companies should limit in-person meetings, reduce travel and stagger work schedules.
Brown said she recognizes the impact that the action will have on businesses and people. She said she’s pulling together a group of business representatives to work on how businesses can face the situation head-on.
“Make no mistake — these efforts to fight coronavirus will have an impact on our daily lives,” Brown said. “But these steps can help save lives. That is what is at stake.”
Dr. Jennifer Vines, tri-county public health officer in the Portland metro area, warned Oregonians not to take the matter lightly.
“This situation has moved at warp speed,” she said.
She said the state had to “look ahead at what’s happening in Washington and Italy.”
“I have no illusions about the bitter pill this is to swallow for our communities,” she said.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the county will keep winter shelter beds open and have workers fan out to give the homeless blankets and hygiene supplies.
Wheeler said Portland has stopped disconnecting water and sewer service for nonpayment to help anyone facing economic hardship from the epidemic, he said.
“COVID-19 has been jarring for every one of us,” Wheeler said.
A study published on Wednesday showed that the virus stays up to three hours in the air, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and steel, according to a report by The Associated Press.
Previously, scientists thought it could only be transmitted through droplets, for example in a cough. But this study indicates that people could become infected simply by breathing in addition to touching a contaminated surface then touching their face or being in close contact with an infected individual.
The ban on large gatherings follows a limit on visitors to residential care facilities, announced on Wednesday.
The state has 21 cases, including two announced late Wednesday in Edward C. Allworth Oregon Veterans Home, a long-term care facility in Lebanon. Both men are over 80 years old. At least nine people are hospitalized.
Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said public health officials has launched a “strike team” to the home to test all residents, employees and others in the home, which includes than 370 people.
The state has insisted that it has enough tests, though some chemicals needed to run them are in short supply. The state’s public health laboratory can run about 80 tests a day. Oregon health officials said five hospital systems will have the ability to do testing in their own clinical laboratories. The health authority said Thursday it is not releasing the names of the hospitals for now.
Brown said she is concerned about the state’s testing capacity, underlining that the state is dependent on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the test and supplies.
“The federal government is the only one who can expand our testing capacity,” Brown said. “We are calling on them to do that.”
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and epidemiologist, said the state public health laboratory will continue to limit tests to people who are hospitalized with pneumonia who don’t have the flu. Currently, doctors can order a test through a commercial lab for a patient and don’t need public health officials to approve it.
Brown has sent a second letter to Vice President Mike Pence, seeking more resources and administrative actions from federal agencies to ease the state’s burden, including steps for expanded unemployment benefits, food stamps and other programs to help impacted businesses, schools and people.
For now, state public health officials will wait and watch, as Oregon prepares itself for a public health crisis unlike any other in recent decades.
“It’s certainly been a roller coaster,” Brown said. “There’s no question about that.”
You can reach Ben Botkin at email@example.com or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.