Oregon plans to ‘safely take steps forward’ with reopening state

Governor releases guidelines for tracking virus, eventual lifting of restrictions

May 6, 2020 — On May 1, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown held a press conference to update Oregonians on her plan to gather information she believes is needed to determine a timeline for lifting the current ban on business operations and social interactions.

In her introductory remarks, Brown acknowledged the positive manner in which most Oregonians have responded to the state’s shutdown. She also pointed towards the path she feels must be taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of the state’s residents. 

“As we look to reopen Oregon, it’s critical we use science and data to insure we can safely take steps forward. Public health experts agree that there are key steps to safely reopening. At the top of that list is a thorough strategy to test, trace and isolate the virus,” Brown said. “We must understand the prevalence of the disease in Oregon. Testing and tracing serve two purposes: first, to diagnose those who are sick. And second, to see where the virus may be hiding.”

The strategy suggested by Brown includes a voluntary tracking component which utilizes data from volunteers who test positive in order to determine the spread of the virus. There will also be contact tracing follow-ups and interviews scheduled with any individuals who have come into contact with test volunteers.

The main goal of the initial stage of the reopening plan is based on increasing both the number of tests given and reducing the number of needed tests by limiting which individuals will be allowed to take a test. 

According to Brown, the plan was crafted under the guidance of the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and in close consultation with Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). The goal is to identify which counties may have so few cases of COVID that there is a low likelihood of social infection, allowing for easing of restrictions.

“This will include building testing partnerships with smaller hospitals in rural parts of the state. When this partnership is fully implemented, I believe we will have sufficient capacity to meet these first two testing objectives,” Brown stated. “But, in order to reopen and hopefully stay open, we must have randomized, widespread testing across the entire state.” 

The governor also expressed her goal that testing be available for any Oregonian showing symptoms of the coronavirus or who is concerned they have been infected. If an individual is displaying known signs of the virus, Brown said they should be able to be tested, particularly individuals in vulnerable group-living situations where COVID-19 is suspected, such as nursing homes, prisons and farmworker housing.

However, that objective isn’t currently possible due to limitations on chemistry and materials needed to process collected samples in quantities large enough to test greater numbers of people. 

The plan expands Oregon’s testing criteria, allowing anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested within 48 to 72 hours. It also sets the goal of being able to perform 30 tests a week per every 10,000 Oregonians.

Brown’s plan indicates a desire for state health officials to facilitate ongoing, widespread randomized testing to identify where the disease may be hiding and to monitor the disease within at-risk populations, such as communities of color and tribes.

“To that end, I am pleased to announce a major new partnership with OHSU to conduct this widespread testing throughout Oregon,” Brown said. “This program is a game changer. It will give us a more accurate understanding of the true rate of infection in Oregon and to have ongoing precision monitoring of any new outbreaks.”

The program, called “Be the Key,” will trace the activities of 100,000 volunteers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our goal is to train at least 600 people, including community health workers, to build out this statewide team of professionals,” Brown explained. “This team will know how to listen and will be bilingual and bicultural so they can understand the people they are talking to — people who may be worried or scared that they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.”

In the presentation, Brown also discussed a meeting she attended last week at which medical centers and OHSU agreed to a unified approach for managing testing across Oregon. This will allow for allocation of resources, such as masks, gowns and face shields, to be utilized where they are most needed.

In addition to laying out her metrics for re-opening the state, Brown also urged Oregonians to understand that the nature of re-opening will be gradual and likely slower than some may want. 

“I want to be clear that we will not be able to open Oregon quickly, or in one fell swoop. This process will happen more slowly than any of us would like,” she said. “However, in certain parts of the state, we see almost zero cases and few hospitalizations. It is my hope that some counties or regions could have the ability to begin the process of reopening as soon as May 15.”

On May 1, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) changed its clinical testing guidelines for medical providers so more people with symptoms can be tested. Now, testing will prioritize impacted populations and all frontline workers. This includes those living or working in care or group living facilities; underserved and marginalized populations, including racial and ethnic minority groups; essential frontline workers, including those providing healthcare services and those serving the public, such as grocery store workers.

The OHA Public Health Division also released a comprehensive 22-page document covering a wide range of medical and laboratory criteria for medical professionals to follow regarding testing and contact tracing plans, guidance for providers on testing and interim investigative guidelines. In addition, it also includes information on:

  • Supplies that the State of Oregon has received from the federal government, Department of Health and Human Services or from other sources that will be given to Oregon counties. 
  • Testing supplies that will be delivered to counties. 
  • How OHA will prioritize counties with the lowest testing rates and highest case numbers without testing available in their counties, or counties that have other barriers to testing in a timely manner. 

OHA estimates that 15,000 COVID-19 tests are needed statewide per week at this time. This includes the number of tests needed for testing people in Oregon communities or cases (12,250 tests per week). The state also needs tests (2,500 tests per week) in clinical and group care settings and to follow COVID-19 outbreaks and study the movement of the disease.

The Oregon Health Authority has posted its most recent rules, regulations and guidelines for many aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, including testing criteria, details of the voluntary testing program and instructions for providers at www.oregon.gov/oha/.


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