SALEM — The Oregon Health Authority disclosed an array of statistics Thursday showing many counties are already struggling to meet all public health benchmarks meant to protect residents from the coronavirus amid reopening efforts.
Half of Oregon’s counties are failing to meet at least one of six metrics, which track growth in new infections, hospitalizations, the timeliness of contact tracing and the prevalence of unknown community spread of the virus, among other things.
The red flags come less than a week after Gov. Kate Brown allowed most jurisdictions to reopen May 15. The statistics make clear some challenges existed well before then. (Click here to visit the state’s dashboard)
The new measures are similar but distinct from those Brown used to initially determine that 31 of 36 counties could reopen amid the pandemic that has crushed Oregon’s economy. Those counties or broader regions had to show they had enough testing, hospital and contact tracing capacity, although some prerequisites turned out to be quite flexible.
Even so, the new indicators show potential warning signs across many counties, including Marion and Polk, which Brown announced could reopen this week. The benchmarks also show existing challenges for Clackamas County, which has applied to reopen, and Washington and Multnomah counties, the only two in Oregon that have yet seek state approval.
The online dashboard offers the clearest picture to date of the challenges that many communities face, providing stark graphics with green check marks to show success and red warning lines and x’s to show problems.
State officials said the goal of the new dashboard is to ensure Oregonians have access to meaningful statistics to guide safe behavior. Oregon so far has reported about 3,700 infections and 145 deaths out of more than 105,000 residents tested, recording few cases and fatalities compared to other states.
“We want people to see for themselves the progress that we’re making in Oregon in containing the virus, and also see where we’re facing challenges, and to hopefully understand that we all have to continue to do everything we can to minimize our own risks and the risks we pose to others,” said Robb Cowie, a health authority spokesman.
Cowie said state officials never expected each county to meet every indicator all the time. Public health authorities plan to monitor progress and offer support to counties. But they have no plans to push for new closures based on what they’ve seen so far.
“It’s not going to be easy to hit all these benchmarks,” Cowie said.
Eighteen counties and the state already are missing at least one benchmark, according to the numbers, indicating “the seriousness of the challenge,” he said.
The state’s previous guidance, released May 7, said: “If one or more of these signs happens, we will need to consider putting some of our protections back in place in order prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
On the plus side, the dashboard shows that less than 1% of people visiting an emergency department in recent days have had symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And the percent of positive tests each day has been trending downward.
But it also shows that the state as a whole and 15 counties, including Polk and Clackamas, have seen an unacceptable rate of new infections from unidentified community spread in the past seven days. The goal is to keep such infections below 30% of the total but that’s happened on just five days in the past two months statewide.
Being able to identify the source of an infection is important because it means public health officials are containing the spread.
“The goal is that with more contact tracing capacity, we’ll be able to do more and deeper investigations and find those links,” Cowie said. “But if we don’t, and that percentage continues to be above 30, that will be one of the signs we’ll need to pay attention to.”
Meanwhile, Deschutes, Lane, Marion and five other counties have seen new infections increase by more than 5 percent in the past week. Deschutes, in particular, did not meet three benchmarks, seeing not only a rise in cases but also a higher rate of positive tests and too much unknown community spread.
Multnomah and Marion counties just missed the state’s benchmark for beginning to perform contact tracing on nearly all cases within 24 hours.
The red flags on Marion and Polk counties did not stop Brown from announcing both could reopen this Friday. State officials blocked those efforts last week, saying they did not see a decline in daily hospital admissions for coronavirus.
The reopening criteria for hospitalizations apparently were met although the health authority did not disclose details in response to inquiries and a public records request from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said Marion and Polk each met reopen standards and submitted revised plans for contact tracing, testing and reaching populations, such as Hispanic and elderly people, disproportionately infected by coronavirus.
“The counties will now need to deliver on their promises in order to remain in Phase I” of Brown’s three-phase reopening effort, Boyle said in a statement. “The Oregon Health Authority will be watching the metrics for these counties exceptionally closely and will require additional interventions should they become necessary.”
The statistics released Thursday also showed an apparent uptick in daily hospital admissions from the figures released when Brown announced most of Oregon could reopen. The numbers were far lower than the peak of 28 in a single day in March, but the nine admissions May 13 were the highest in a week.
Cowie did not express alarm. “We try to look at those fluctuations in the context of the overall trend,” he said.
State officials plan to publish new numbers for the dashboard each week, he said. When pressed about the timelines of information, he said they would consider if it’s possible to update some figures daily.
Cowie reiterated that the benchmarks will be looked at holistically and there’s no set criteria to trigger closing, with challenges in counties to be reviewed “on a case by case basis.”
“If we do see a situation where a county has a large spike, and it’s not clear what’s driving those numbers, then yeah, we’ll have to look at that,” he said. “And we’ll have to consider what are the options and what do we need to do to keep people safe in that community.”