It’s been more than a month since Gov. Kate Brown enacted social distancing measures. Like the rest of us, time has moved slowly for the governor.
“Holy fuh-smokes, it feels a lot longer than that,” she said at the start of her May 1 press conference.
On May 1, the governor held a press conference to talk about her COVID-19 testing plans and a new program to monitor COVID-19 throughout the state. And should rural regions have testing protocols, some counties with zero positives and few hospitalizations could start a reopening process.
“As we look to reopen Oregon, it’s critical we understand the prevalence of COVID-19 across the state and use science and data to ensure we can safely take steps forward,” Brown said. “A strategy of testing and tracing helps us identify who has the disease and who may be at risk of infection — knowledge that is incredibly powerful as we look to reopen.”
She said the state’s testing strategy has three goals: have available testing for any Oregonian showing symptoms, vulnerable communities and randomized testing to know where COVID-19 is spreading and how it’s impacting tribal people and communities of color.
“Testing should be available for any Oregonian showing symptoms of the virus,” she said. “If you are displaying known signs of the virus, you should be able to be tested.”
Brown said at a meeting held earlier this week with CEOs of hospitals throughout the state, a unified testing approach was developed. This approach would build testing partnerships with rural hospitals.
But the state needs randomized testing to reopen and stay open, she said. And that’s where a new medical study led by researchers at Oregon Health and Science University comes in. Called “Key to Oregon, 100,000 Oregonians will be invited to participate in the medical study conducted by researchers from OHSU.
Brown said she’s asking residents to “heed the call” and participate in the program.
“We’re all in this together,” she said. “We can be the key to beat the disease. This tool is a critical piece in the puzzle of Oregon’s testing strategy going forward.”
According to OHSU’s webpage on the study, it will explore the link between easing social distancing measures and rise in infections. By providing participants with tools like smart thermometers, the study could identify COVID-19 in its earliest stages to find ways to trace and isolate the virus. Another expected result is that it could identify asymptomatic outbreaks, which is an otherwise invisible factor. And the study is meant to focus more on high-risk populations such as people of color and tribal communities, who will be represented disproportionately in the study.
“The study will provide a baseline about the virus and how it behaves for data-driven decisions,” said Dr. Danny Jacobs, president of OHSU.
Because Oregonians are following the governor’s executive orders, Dr. Dean Sidelinger of Oregon Health Authority said the curve is flattening. The transmission rate decreased up to 70 percent, according to state modeling and social distancing (which officials are now calling physical distancing) prevented 70,000 infections in the state and 1,500 hospitalizations.
Dr. Sidelinger said the state has the 15,000 weekly test capacity goal that the governor wanted before reopening the state, adding that the state has access to larger labs for surge testing if needed.
He said that this week the state saw 2,000 tests conducted in two days. This is because increased populations are included in the testing guidelines. Now that physicians can request a test for a patient who has mild symptoms, he said testing numbers should increase.
The governor’s plan expands Oregon’s testing criteria so anyone with possible COVID-19 symptoms can be tested within 48 to 72 hours. The plan’s goal is to perform 30 tests per week for every 10,000 Oregonians.
Brown said opening the state wouldn’t happen quickly or all at once. The reopening process will be a lot slower than what people want. But in some rural areas, where there have been zero positive cases and few hospitalizations, could start the reopening process as soon as May 15.
She said she is meeting via Zoom with officials from several counties on May 1 via to talk about the reopening process. For those counties to reopen, that means rural counties need to have the ability to test, trace and isolate for the virus.
According to an email from the Governor’s Office, Brown is meeting Friday with representatives from Gilliam, Hood River, Sherman, Wasco, Baker, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa Counties, as well as representatives from local hospitals and medical centers. Later in the day, she’ll talk with representatives from Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, and Wheeler Counties, as well as representatives from local hospitals and medical centers.
Should those counties reopen, residents will still need to follow social distancing, wear masks in public and follow CDC-approved hygiene (such as coughing like a vampire). And handshaking will be hands-off for a long time, she added.
However, for most of Oregon’s population, social distancing will be here until there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, Brown said.