CORONAVIRUS, Government, Oregon

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announces framework, no dates, for loosening coronavirus restrictions

Oregon governor Kate Brown spoke at a press conference the afternoon of March 16, 2020. Dave Killen / staff, the Oregonian

Coronavirus resources: CDC on the coronavirusOregon Health Authority resourcesWashington County resourcesOregonian reporting on the coronavirusOPB glossary of coronavirus termsNYTimes free reporting on the coronavirus

This article was originally published by the Oregonian/OregonLive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced the state’s initial framework for lifting statewide closures, saying she would take a slow, science-based approach to deciding how to move forward, without specifying any dates.

Brown said she wants five things to be in place: A declining growth rate of active cases, sufficient personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, surge capacity in hospitals, increased testing capacity, tracing and isolating positive cases and strategies for vulnerable communities including nursing homes and the homeless population.

“This is only a framework,” Brown said in a press conference. “We have to be cautious or it will backfire.”

“It’s not going to be easy and it will take longer than we want,” she said.

The announcement was short on details, leaving it unclear how Oregon would define how much protective equipment it needs, how an effective tracing program would be staffed and funded as well as when testing capacity is expected to increase.

The governor said her next steps include soliciting input from local leaders, consulting with the most affected industries, including restaurants and hair and nail salons, completing metrics for reopening and operational plans for testing, tracing and isolation. Coordinating with other West Coast states, Brown said, she will finalize discrete steps and guidelines for a step-by-step plan to reopen the state.

State epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said to reopen, Oregon would need the capability to do 15,000 tests a week, 2,100 a day, not the ability to test every Oregonian.

Both Sidelinger and Brown incorrectly claimed the state’s testing capacity has been growing when it has plateaued. Sidelinger said Oregon has “substantially and gradually increased our testing capacity in the state.” Oregon has been testing about 1,300 people a day — for the last three weeks.

Modeling estimates the coronavirus’ transmission rate in Oregon has plummeted amid the statewide shutdown. But while Oregon’s latest modeling estimates that cases have plateaued here, the state isn’t expected to see a drop-off in numbers for at least six weeks. As of Monday, 53 people had died from the coronavirus and 1,584 had tested positive.

Researchers with the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling wrote in an April 10 report that Oregon needs to maintain its current aggressive measures to decrease the number of active infections.

Even if Oregon returned to the moderate restrictions in place in mid-March, which included school closures and bans on gatherings of more than 25 people, “active infections will rapidly increase,” the researchers concluded.

Sidelinger and Brown said a far more robust system was needed to trace the contacts of people who test positive. They did not specify the numbers of new staff that may be needed.

Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Monday that the state needed between 400 and 1,000 people to administer testing and trace the contacts of known positive cases to be able to effectively control the spread when restrictions are gradually loosened. By comparison, Multnomah County, Oregon’s most populated county, had a pre-pandemic staff of seven people to trace contacts and has since added 15 more.

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