Deschutes Co. health director: Reopening bars, gyms ‘not the best strategy’ to curb virus

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Bars or schools?

Deschutes County and Oregon are at a community priority crossroads right now that’s pitting the economy against education.

Business owners against health officials.

Partying coeds against kindergartners.

“I think that to have reopened many other things while keeping schools closed was probably not the best strategy,” Deschutes County Health Services Director Dr. George Conway said Tuesday night during a presentation to the Bend-La Pine school board.

But here we are, more than eight months into a pandemic that’s killed 608 Oregonians and sickened 38,000 others.

Most schools across the state remain closed due to the continued high number of COVID cases. The OHA on Wednesday reported there were 2,418 new cases last week – up 18% from the week before and the highest weekly total in Oregon to date.

Deschutes County cases have spiked in recent weeks too, ending any hope for a quick return to the classroom.

Deschutes Co. reports another COVID spike; schools restart delayed again

Locally, nearly 25,000 students are participating in online learning while parents struggle with getting time off work, glitchy internet issues and a sense of helplessness while feeling like their kids are falling behind.

Meanwhile, patrons were allowed back in bars and restaurants on a limited basis in early June when Gov. Kate Brown moved the state into Phase 2 of her reopening plan. Gyms were allowed to reopen in May.

Knowing what we know now, Bend-La Pine school board member Caroline Skidmore wondered aloud Tuesday: Why?

“I want to go on record to say how much it bothers me that our kids are really taking the brunt of this and our schools are closed while our areas that have some of the highest transmissions – bars and gyms continue to be open – and I haven’t heard a lot of outrage about that,” she said.

Conway told the board the decision to reopen bars and gyms and keep them open “seems odd” and “I don’t think that makes any sense at all,” especially in hindsight now that many recent COVID cases have been traced to young adults and indoor public gathering places.

“We know a lot of the mixing of the young adults that we’re seeing is in bar settings and other social settings,” he said.

“We’re in the bottom of the fourth right now. The sixth and seventh innings are going to be rough.”
– Deschutes Co. Health Services Director Dr. George Conway

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, told Central Oregon Daily News that the OHA hasn’t “seen significant and clear evidence of outbreaks related to bars and restaurants.”

“Of course, this does not mean there is no virus transmission connected to bars and restaurants,” he said. “And, if COVID-19 continues to spread in our communities at higher rates, it will be difficult for such businesses to continue operating safely, much less reopen schools.”

Boyle said the governor’s office didn’t want to single out any specific sector of the economy for shut down, saying “we want to exhaust all possible other methods of controlling the virus and have as much sector-specific data as possible.”

Conway shared with the board a series of slides updating them about COVID cases here, including a slide that showed most of the county’s COVID cases (196) were in people age 20-29.

Roughly 350 of the county’s 1,000 cases are in people 29 and younger.

Another slide showed the risk factor for various activities. Going to a bar and working out in a gym were two activities among the “highest” risk to spread the virus.

Sending kids to school is considered a “moderate” risk because while young children aren’t as likely to get sick, “a lot become infected and they shed the virus,” Conway said.

He hopes the state changes the health metrics to include bringing back students in grades K-5 because elementary schools can focus on cohorts (keeping small groups together).

Schools will be better equipped to reopen as well due to new rapid testing that will allow officials to examine outbreaks in a matter of days.

But, he said, when schools reopen, “we really should be closing some of the highest risk enterprises at the same time.”

School Board Chairwoman Carrie Douglass has said she hopes the state reconsiders the health metrics that are keeping schools closed.

But more importantly, she said Tuesday, the community needs to help stop the spread of the virus.

“Many of us would like to see the state have more consistent measures and restrictions across different industries,” she said. “But until that happens the best we can do is make a plea to our community to take a look at that chart of the highest risk activities and choose to not engage in high-risk activities even if it’s allowed.”

Conway urged the community to continue voicing its opinions to higher-ups.

“This is a public meeting and I don’t want to be overly candid, but there’s often been concessions made in many states to the people who have complained the loudest rather than sort of a very deliberate risk-benefit-based process,” he said.

He used a baseball analogy to give the board an update on where we’re at with the virus.

“We’re in the bottom of the fourth right now,” he said. “The sixth and seventh innings are going to be rough.”

He said we shouldn’t expect a widespread vaccine until next spring.

 

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