Oregon’s COVID-19 cases have been surging to record levels for the past month. And it’s about to get a lot worse unless the state’s 4.2 million residents immediately alter their behavior, officials say.
New modeling released Friday shows that if transmission continues at its current rate, the number of newly identified cases — known as the case count — is expected to jump from 345 each day to 570 by Nov. 5.
Because most cases go undetected, officials estimate the actual number of Oregonians infected each day would be about 2,200 people. That’s a 69% increase and one that state health officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger describes as “troubling.”
But even worse, if the rate of transmission increases over the next three weeks, the number of new cases reported each day could more than double to 740. That would translate to 3,400 Oregonians infected each day, whether their cases are identified or not. Some experts say this is a highly plausible scenario because the virus is expected to spread more easily in coming weeks due to Halloween parties, trick-or-treating and cooler, wetter weather that prompts residents to spend more time indoors.
Despite that, officials with the Oregon Health Authority announced no new restrictions or public safety measures Friday. Rather, they reiterated a message they’ve been stressing for months: Keep your physical distance from others who aren’t members of your household. Avoid gathering in large social groups. Wear masks. Wash your hands.
“I apologize we don’t have a more creative message,” said Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, to a virtual press conference of reporters.
He again pleaded with Oregonians to change their individual behaviors.
“As we study our data one trend stands out: Social gatherings continue to be a forceful driver of this surge,” Allen said, noting that too many people aren’t being careful enough. ” … We must find ways to safely socialize without putting family or friends at risk.”
That approach — requesting more people simply try harder to do better — clearly hasn’t resonated given the past month of data. The number of new known daily infections has nearly doubled since Sept. 11. At the same time, the positivity rate has risen a full percentage point, to 5.1% of all tests administered coming back positive.
Friday, Gov. Kate Brown added Lane County to her “watch list,” which will allow for more state resources to flow to the county to help in its struggle against the virus. Lane County made the list, in part, due to an increase in infections fueled by University of Oregon students who’ve been gathering for large off-campus parties and smaller get-togethers.
At the press conference, Allen and Sidelinger declined to endorse a change in the governor’s recommendation that Oregonians can throw parties or hold get-togethers with 10 or fewer people. Both officials said advising people to avoid gathering with extended family or friends all together isn’t sustainable or in-line with human nature.
“We know that there’s fatigue,” Sidelinger said. “People crave that socialization with the family members outside their households and with their friends.”
Allen and Sidelinger also reiterated the state’s recommendation against in-person Halloween parties and trick-or-treating this year given the risks of coming in contact with scores or even hundreds of different people on front doorsteps.
In contrast, some cities and states across the nation have enacted a host of mandatory restrictions.
Cities ranging from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Springfield, Mass., have announced bans on trick-or-treating.
Some states, including Vermont, with the lowest infection rate in the nation, require most or all people crossing into their borders to quarantine for 14 days.
California and several other states have shuttered bars.
In August, more than 150 Oregon doctors signed a letter urging the governor to close bars and possibly prohibit indoor dining at restaurants. A few weeks later, Brown said she was considering doing so if cases continued to increase. Since then, cases have risen from a daily average of 256 new known infections to about 345.
But Friday, Allen and Sidelinger said they don’t have evidence that COVID-19 is spreading in bars or in the dining rooms of restaurants in Oregon. Sidelinger said officials would know if transmission at these businesses was a problem because public health investigators ask people who’ve tested positive to list all the places they might have been exposed to the virus. He acknowledged, however, they don’t specifically ask if people recently had been to bars or restaurants.
Carlos Crespo, director of Portland State University’s School of Community Health, said closing bars for indoor service is a tactic Oregon should employ because the virus easily transmits in enclosed spaces where unmasked people loudly converse.
“When you have bars open indoors, you’re asking for trouble,” Crespo said.
In September a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have recently dined at a restaurant, although the study didn’t specify how often those sickened dined indoors or out.
Sidelinger said the power to reverse Oregon’s trajectory and slow the spread rests in the decisions each person makes. The modeling released Friday outlined one optimistic scenario — that if members of the public rein in risky COVID-19 behaviors, cases could drop by nearly 20% in the next three weeks. That would mean today’s average of 345 new known cases would drop down to 290. And the number of total infections — including the large number that go undetected — would fall to 800 residents infected on an average day.
But that could be a tall order given the cool and rainy days of fall.
“This new modeling suggests we still have a long ways to go in stopping the spread,” Sidelinger said. “But Oregonians have done it before. And I’m confident they can do it again.”
— Aimee Green; email@example.com; @o_aimee