Benton County Calling for Public Convo About COVID

Benton County, Oregon State University and city of Corvallis officials say they are very concerned about the county’s continued status in the state of Oregon’s highest risk category for COVID-19 and will host a webinar to provide updates on community health, ongoing testing by OSU, vaccination programs and discussions with state officials about the inclusion of testing data within Oregon’s risk metrics.  

The webinar will be held at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Community members are invited to join the webinar by using this link.  

Benton County remains categorized as at extreme risk, and since late December its COVID-19 positive case count has been highly concentrated in the 20-29 age group. Increased case counts have followed expanded testing by OSU beginning Feb. 1 among asymptomatic students living in residence halls and members of fraternities and sororities. Testing of more than 2,400 students weekly was expanded when analysis showed increases in viral markers within wastewater collected from residence halls and in neighborhoods around Greek living units. A large increase in positive cases among symptomatic students also was reported in early February by OSU’s Corvallis campus Student Health Services.  

“Testing is an important prevention technique as it identifies cases and provides an opportunity to prevent community-spread outbreaks,” said Commissioner Xan Augerot, Benton County commission chair. “OSU’s robust testing helps keep the university and local community as safe and informed as possible.”  

Each week, OSU is testing approximately 3.6% of Benton County’s overall population, said Steve Clark, the university’s vice president of university relations and marketing.  

“This testing is discovering positive cases among asymptomatic people who live in our neighborhoods, but who otherwise would not receive testing because they were not displaying symptoms. Identifying these positive cases helps reduce the spread of the virus,” Clark said.   

The state of Oregon’s Risk and Protection Framework ranks counties by COVID-19 risk levels based upon criteria that include the rate of cases per 100,000 population; the number of positive cases recorded in the past 14 days; and the county’s virus positivity rate. The state ranks counties every two weeks as low, moderate, high or extreme risks.   

When counties are in extreme risk, many local business activities are limited, including limiting retail stores and shopping centers to 50% capacity, and restricting indoor dining at eating and drinking establishments. 

In partnership with OSU, Benton County intends to initiate conversations with the Oregon Health Authority and the Governor’s Office about considering changes to Oregon’s Risk and Protection Framework. Benton County intends to propose inclusion of three metrics in any future adjustments to the Risk and Protection Framework: testing volume, number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, and number of ICU beds in use.  

“We understand the pressures being felt as Benton County remains in the extreme risk level,” Augerot said. “Our conversations with the state are about informing wellness more comprehensively while balancing health and safety with a viable economy. We are asking state leadership to give us the opportunity to provide testing data and epidemiological science to further inform their approach to evaluating risk metrics as we progress further into the pandemic.”   

Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said Corvallis councilors are hearing from community residents and local business owners and managers who are concerned about Benton County remaining at an extreme risk level. He said he is aware of such concerns.  

“In Corvallis, we’re hearing a clear message from our business community that state guidelines are creating immense challenges to their livelihoods and those of their employees,” Traber said. “On the other hand, our partners at OSU are doing an admirable job with a high rate of testing for the student body, which helps keep our community safer. We have made great strides as a community during this pandemic.”  

“We must find a way to marry the benefits from the testing data with tangible improvements to our local economy.” 

“Some states do incorporate testing volume into their metrics,” Augerot said. “This helps ensure a low positivity rate is not just a result of a lack of testing.”   

Clark said OSU appreciates the challenges that being at extreme risks poses for community members and local businesses, but added it is a community benefit for the university to continue its expanded testing. 

“Every positive case of COVID-19 is important. We know that appropriate public health measures involving each asymptomatic person diagnosed through testing averts a whole chain of transmission,” Clark said.  

“OSU believes that the university’s continued emphasis on expanded testing, isolation and quarantine practices, adherence to public health measures, and support of vaccinations is helping to keep the general Benton County community informed, contributing to the wellness of not only OSU students, faculty and staff, but also the greater Corvallis and Benton County community.”  

Clark said OSU continues to require its students to wear face coverings; engage in physical distancing; cooperate with contact tracing; and restrict social get-togethers to 6 people or fewer, indoors and outdoors, anywhere in Oregon.