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When Can Oregon Reopen? Not Anytime Soon, Officials Say

Kaylee Domzalski/OPB
Multnomah County Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines speaks during a press conference on social distancing on March 19, 2020.

Oregon health officials say the time frame for reopening Oregon is still difficult to determine.

Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that West Coast governors would work together on a plan to lift stay-at-home orders and allow businesses to reopen when public health trends suggest they can.

But as protesters in the Northwest rally to reopen the economy, many are grappling with how long it might actually be until people can reopen for business.

“Our overall level of immunity to this virus is still low, and to my knowledge there are no treatments that have emerged as effective to date. We are relying on the development and skill of a vaccine, which is just going to take time,” Vines told OPB’s "Think Out Loud."

Vines said that keeping outbreaks localized will depend on human behavior, and that recommendations regarding face coverings and social distancing will stick around for the time being.

“While I can’t predict exactly how the next months [or] two years are going to go, I think COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while,” she said. 

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the state has the capacity to test at a rate of 9,100 tests a week, with the goal to conduct 15,000 tests per week in the near future. OHA is also meeting with the governor and her medical advisory panel this week to add 600 people around the state who can help conduct contact tracing in order to identify more cases.

While people stay home and the “curve” continues to bend downward, Allen said that reopening the state too soon could lead to coronavirus cases returning.

“What I really fear is being in sort of a halfway place — where maybe we as people in public health and governors backed off these restrictions, but we did it too soon and the disease rebounded,” Allen said.

“That leaves it in a place where people effectively shut down the economy because they don’t have the confidence to go to theaters or restaurants, they don’t want to send their kids to school. They don’t want to go to jobs because they’re afraid of being infected by other people. I think that would be a really terrible outcome that we really need to try to avoid.”

While antibody studies aim to shine a light on immunity and how to treat COVID-19, Vines said there’s still much to be learned.

“There are a lot of unknowns about these tests, and they’re still fairly problematic in terms of what they tell us,” Vines said. “Right now, the quality of the testing — I don’t think is anywhere near that level of confidence.”

Vines acknowledged that stay-at-home orders have caused significant emotional and financial hardships for people, but encouraged people to continue to stay home, because that will ultimately prevent the spread of the disease.

“I [t]hink there’s a risk of overestimating the damage of these longer ‘stay home to save lives’ campaigns. I think there’s some decent scientific evidence that it not only helps suppress disease, but also that economies can actually bounce back better through more cautious social distancing measures,” Vines said.

“I would urge people to bear with us through this time, and realize that every individual action adds up to a collective experience here that we all determine together.”
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Donald Orr, Sage Van Wing