By ANDREW SELSKY
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon will launch an ambitious COVID-19 random testing program and increase contact tracing as it readies to reopen the economy, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday, though a top state official said reopening will inevitably cost lives.
She announced at a news conference that ultimately 100,000 volunteers will be needed.
“This program is a game changer,” Brown said. “It will give us a more accurate understanding of the true rate of infections in Oregon and to have ongoing precision monitoring of any new outbreaks.”
Brown also said some rural Oregon counties where there are almost zero coronavirus cases could begin reopening slowly starting May 15.
The governors of Oregon, Washington state, California, Colorado and Nevada have agreed to coordinate the reopening of their states, but Brown told reporters that she and Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee are not in lockstep.
“I would say that we are marching on a similar path, but we’re taking different trails off of that path,” Brown said. “I do know that Gov. Inslee was quite frustrated that he closed down construction and manufacturing and wished he’d taken the approach that Oregon took.”
The random program will be carried out in a partnership with Oregon Health & Science University, she said.
A request for volunteers will go out mid-May. When any of the 100,000 volunteers develop COVID-19 symptoms, they will be tested.
A few other states have started similar testing but Oregon has “the opportunity to accelerate the impact and learn from the information,” said Oregon Health & Science University President Danny Jacobs.
Health officials warned that opening up the state will inevitably cost lives, but that standing still forever is not an option.
“We know when we take this step that in fact there will be more disease in the state. More people will get sick and sadly, more people will die,” Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said in a telephone interview. “And the challenge for us is to make sure that we’re managing that risk and mitigating it as effectively as we possibly can.”
Oregon also plans to step up contact tracing, so anyone who was in contact with someone who gets the coronavirus can be contacted and monitored.
For aggressive contact tracing, Oregon needs about one person for every 10,000 Oregonians, meaning about 600 additional people must help with contact tracing, state health officer Dean Sidelinger said.
They will be “trained up quickly to deploy either remotely via a phone or out into communities to help with the contact tracing,” Sidelinger said over the phone.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
Modeling shows Oregon could have about 2,800 people infected by the coronavirus currently, including unknown and untested people, officials said. So far, 103 people are known to have died from the virus in Oregon.
Before the random testing plan was announced, officials said Oregon needs the ability to conduct 12,250 tests per week, for a rate of 29 per 10,000, according to health officials. That level would have to increase as stay-home orders are eased. In recent weeks COVID-19 testing has increased to more than 9,000 tests per week.
Allen said maintaining the lockdown indefinitely is not a solution.
“The challenge for us is to make sure that we’re managing that risk and mitigating it as effectively as we possibly can,” Allen said. “The flip side of the coin is staying where we are today also has risk. We can’t keep everything shut down, including health care and important sectors of the economy, essentially forever.”
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