A report from the White House says Salem and Marion County are metro areas where bars should be closed, testing should be increased and other regulations should be placed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But Oregon took the county off its watch list Thursday, anyway.
Marion County was placed on the state’s watch list of counties July 31 after its incidence of sporadic cases of COVID-19 rose to a concerning level, but the state said Friday those cases were tracked to a known source and it have continued to remain low.
“I do know some of the information that the White House is using is not always up to date or accurate,” Gov. Kate Brown said Friday.
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With Oregon far from meeting the state’s parameters for opening schools for in-person instruction, Brown said if local leaders don’t do enough to slow the spread of COVID-19, she could take action at the end of August.
She said she is considering options that include forcing businesses to close and requiring travelers from other states – or those from Oregon returning to the state – to quarantine.
“I believe, and the data indicates, that either one of these strategies will work,” Brown said. “Either one will drive down the spread of the virus more quickly. Either one gives us a fighting chance to open up in-person instruction and K through education more quickly.
“But one path has a far greater cost than the other. Closing businesses across the state like we did with the Stay Home, Save Lives order works to control the virus, but the economic cost is extraordinary.”
The White House report didn’t specify the parameters of why Salem was put in a “Yellow Zone,” but did include areas of Eastern Oregon that have been hard hit by the virus recently, including Umatilla, Malheur and Morrow Counties.
“I haven’t seen it and I wouldn’t be surprised,” Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis said. “I think both the governor’s office and us recognize that our epidemiology teams are doing a really good job.
“I think the governor recognizes, and we recognize, that our public health system is working.”
However, the idea of closing businesses again is one Willis wants to avoid.
He said less than 1% of cases in Marion County were tied to the spread of COVID-19 in bars and restaurants, and the state needs to focus more on settings like assisted living facilities that have had high incidences of new cases.
Willis said in the outbreak at Brookstone Alzheimer’s Care Center in Salem, where 67 cases and 13 deaths were reported, 10 of the 24 employees went to work despite displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
“We have to make sure people have an incentive not to go to work sick,” he said. “It was really disturbing to me.”
260 days until schools reopen at current rate
Brown said she has had discussions with county officials and business associations to educate them before deciding to enforce restrictions again.
According to Oregon Health Authority statistics, the current reproduction rate of around one infection resulting from a known infection, it could take 260 days for the state to meet the current metrics to reopen schools.
If that number goes down to .75 per infection, it could meet that goal in as short as 51 days.
“Our infection rate is still too high to get all of our kids back in the classrooms this fall,” she said.
“We need to see a much more rapid decline in case numbers and we need to see this much more quickly.”
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Oregon has yet to meet the requirement of a test positivity rate of below 5% for schools to reopen, and one county – Wheeler – currently meets the county metrics for reopening.
She said she was working with local officials and encouraging them to enforce the restrictions she’s placed, including discouraging large gatherings and encouraging mask use.
Marion County sporadic cases drop, case rates stay high
Marion County had its sporadic case rate increase above 50 cases per 100,000 in late July, which led to the county being placed on the watch list.
Despite the county getting that aspect under control, it has consistently been far above the state’s metrics, including a positivity rate over 3% above the allowed 5% and case rates seven times greater than the allowed 10 cases per 100,000 residents.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer, said the county had identified the source of its sporadic cases and the rate has remained below 50 over the past two weeks.
“Marion County, like every other county, we continue to watch this data on a regular basis, update it weekly for trends that are concerning or counties that go over that limit,” Sidelinger said.
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“We reach out to see what we can do to help them and then if they’re placed on the watch list to have a more formal agreement about identifying the resources they need, prioritizing those resources and working together to stem the spread with our public health tools on hand.”
The state said after discussions with the White House, it had secured supplies to increase testing in the state to process an additional 20,000 cases per week.
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Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/bpoehler