‘The only way to stay safe is constant vigilance’

Florence's numbers continue to remain low, but the main metropolitan areas of Eugene/Springfield are causing concerns in Lane County.

Lane County’s confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise, prompting concern about next steps

Oct. 10, 2020 — On Wednesday, Lane County led the state in confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 53 of the 305 new cases in Oregon. Lane County reported another 40 on Thursday and 50 on Friday, leading to a total of 1,723 cases in the county.

Clusters of cases have popped up at the University of Oregon, Eugene Water and Electric Board and Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative in Eugene, as well as Kingsford Charcoal in Springfield and Seneca Sawmill in Noti. The county only announces workplace clusters if they surpass five confirmed cases.

On Tuesday, Lane County Public Health (LCPH) Public Information Officer Jason Davis announced that the county is monitoring 617 people who were in contact with people contagious with COVID-19.

“That is an all-time record,” Davis said.

During the rest of the week, LCPH gave additional updates in two press conferences, which are streamed live on Lane County Government’s Facebook page and available to view online.

“We can have an outbreak or clusters in one population of people, but unless the entire community is really taking the health recommendations seriously and being vigilant on those, then we will see spread to all corners of our community,” Davis said on Thursday. “Unfortunately, that’s what we’re starting to see.”

His immediate recommendation for the community is to take action to remain safe.

“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has let us know that it is possible that the virus is airborne. That means that you can get it pretty easily,” Davis said. “The only way to stay safe is constant vigilance — and even then, there is a possibility that you might still get sick.”

The numbers in Lane County are increasing at a rate that is still manageable for LCPH staff to conduct tracing. However, the alarming numbers prompted the Oct. 6 meeting of the Lane County Board of Commissioners to consider “COVID-19 Response and Recovery” during its morning meeting.

During the meeting, Lane County Health & Human Services Director Karen Gaffney presented five options for the commissioners to consider in addressing the county’s growing case rate:

  1. Continue to monitor and intensify messaging efforts regarding masks, gatherings, distancing and hygiene
  2. Sector-specific work with higher education, businesses, faith communities, etc.
  3. Direct staff to prepare an ordinance to require mask wearing
  4. Request to be placed on the Governor’s County Watch List
  5. Request to return to Phase 1.

“What we need people to do is pretty straightforward: wear a mask, don’t gather, keep your physical distance and (maintain) hygiene,” Gaffney said.

She and Lane County’s Senior Public Health Officer Dr. Patrick Luedtke said that county staff recommended the first two policies, which are already active.

 According to Luedtke, a return to Phase 1 would be a “blunt instrument” that would hurt certain areas that are so far less affected.

“It doesn’t take into account the geography of our county — frontier, rural, urban — and where the predominant cases are,” he said. “It may not give us the maximum benefit we would like and may also put some punishment on those areas that haven’t seen a great deal of the disease.”

Phase 1 is detailed at govstatus.egov.com/reopening-oregon as part of Gov. Kate Brown’s reopening plan for the state. Lane County has been out of Phase 1 — which limits gatherings and requires more people to work from home — since June 5.

The health officials also talked about the requirements to make it onto the Governor’s County Watch List.

“Counties are placed on the Watch List when COVID-19 is spreading quickly and public health officials cannot trace that spread to specific sources — creating a potentially dangerous dynamic,” the website reports. “Metrics include when there is a sporadic case rate of 50 or more per 100,000 people in the last two weeks and the county has had more than five sporadic cases in the last two weeks. Sporadic cases are those that cannot be traced to a source; they indicate community spread.”

In Lane County, “We have not had an issue with sporadic cases,” Gaffney said. “We are able to do really great work in our contact tracing and link those cases to outbreaks. That is why we are currently not on the governor’s watch list.”

Luedtke added, “It doesn’t seem as though we will (meet the requirements) anytime soon as long as we keep our numbers at this relatively high level and don’t go too much higher, and we maintain the staffing that we have.”

As for a local mask ordinance, the statewide order is still in place, and there is little extra a county government could add to that.

After this information, the commissioners got the chance to weigh in on.

West Lane District 1 Commissioner Jay Bozievich said that he is seeing “a lot of fatigue” as people grow weary of the restrictions that keep them away from loved ones and events.

“My message to folks is that we’ve got to get those behaviors back in control so (LCPH staff) can continue to do the contact tracing you’ve been doing that keeps our random case rate down,” he said.

Commission Chair Heather Buch, representative for East Lane District 5, instructed staff to pursue additional messaging and sector-specific guidelines, the first two staff recommendations.

However, “We should be prepared to be on the Governor’s County Watch List soon if our numbers continue to rise,” she cautioned.

Lane County has been conducting testing for those affected by the recent wildfires, with three testing dates this week. There have been a total of 69,821 negative tests since testing began in March.

According to govstatus.egov.com/OR-OHA-COVID-19, the state has had a total of 36,116 cases as of 12:01 a.m. Friday. Oregon has had 594 deaths.

In a Tuesday press conference, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said, “The rising case numbers should catch everyone’s attention. COVID-19 is a stubborn enemy. It will not go away easily or soon. Rooting it out of our homes and our community requires all of us working together.”

Part of the conference was the announcement that the federal government will be giving Oregon 60,000 to 80,000 COVID-19 rapid tests per week until the end of the year. The Abbott BinaxNOW antigen tests can diagnose cases of COVID-19 in 15 minutes.

This will double Oregon’s testing capacity, though testing will be prioritized for vulnerable communities. It is unclear how the tests will be divided by county.

In the meantime, Davis suggests that Lane County residents continue to wear masks, maintain distance, limit gatherings and wash often.

“The best way that people can truly be helpful is to examine their own actions and really make sure they are doing their part and communicating with their friends and families,” he said. “If you really want to make a difference, really want to help, the best thing you can do is have those conversations in your social group and in your family with those who may not be masking, or who may not see COVID as a serious threat to our public health. … This needs to be a pro-social, helpful effort, where we’re all pitching in and really trying to slow the spread.”

In her closing remarks on the COVID-19 agenda item at the Lane County Commissioners meeting, Buch said, “Everybody needs to participate. This is an ‘us’ issue, not a ‘they’ or ‘them’ issue. I strongly urge folks to continue to follow the guidelines so that we don’t have to move on to options three, four and five. And option four may not be an option; it may be dictated for us.”

On Friday afternoon, Brown announced that Umatilla County was back on the Watch List even though it remains in Phase 2.

“Combined with yesterday's record high statewide case count, this is a sign that we must tread cautiously or we risk losing the gains we've made in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” the governor stated.

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