More Oregonians have been identified with coronavirus in the past week than at any point since the pandemic began. At the same time, residents in the hospital with the virus spiked by 40 percent.
The two statistics present sobering reminders that the coronavirus is far from contained as summer looms.
The Oregon Health Authority reported 620 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 infections in the past week, including the state’s largest and second-largest daily case totals of 146 Sunday and 114 Monday.
That pushed the moving average for the past week to almost 89 infections identified a day, or 10 more a day than Oregon’s previous high. The number of infections reported daily bottomed out two weeks ago but has since doubled.
State public health officials said Monday the rising case counts are not necessarily a sign of alarm, however.
They pointed to record levels of testing and a large workplace outbreak, both of which they said have helped tip the tally upward.
Health officials would not quantify how many daily infections, or what percentage of positive tests, would trigger broader concerns, saying they want more data and to look at the picture holistically.
“It’s hard to say anything definitive about a few days’ worth of data,” said Dr. Paul Cieslak, Oregon’s medical director for communicable diseases. “We’re really going to have to watch the trends and, you know, draw conclusions with the benefit of at least a little bit of hindsight.”
But Cieslak acknowledged some concern over a recent increase in active hospitalizations, which suggests people are seeking care at a faster pace and the sickest are not quickly leaving.
The number of Oregonians in the hospital as of June 2 with a confirmed case of COVID-19 stood at 46, the lowest since the state began releasing figures. But the number climbed to 65 people by Monday.
“This is one of the factors that is concerning and that we’re going to have to keep an eye on,” Cieslak said.
Oregon throughout the pandemic has recorded one of the country’s lowest death rates and infection rates among residents who are tested. But the state also has one of the lowest testing rates in the country, meaning it’s not surprising that increased testing has identified more infections – particularly at places with known outbreaks.
An outbreak at Pacific Seafood in Newport infected at least 124 people, or roughly one out of every five Oregonians identified within the past week. Nearly all of those infections are among people who were tested without symptoms, officials said.
“We think that these increasing case numbers, there’s reason for optimism,” said Dr. Thomas Jeanne, the deputy state health officer and deputy epidemiologist. “Because they mean that our strategy of increasing testing and contact tracing related to outbreaks … is working.”
State officials in the past week also reported workplace outbreaks in Washington, Clackamas, Marion and Hood River counites. Those initial reports totaled only 37 infections, although it’s possible they have since climbed.
Cieslak said he had not looked at the data closely enough to know whether Oregon is experiencing an upward trend in identified infection cases after accounting for and removing workplace outbreaks.
Jeanne suggested that is not the case.
“I wouldn’t say we’re seeing a clear upward trend at this point outside of the workplace outbreaks,” Jeanne said.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority said test results for the past three days show that one out of every 20 people tested for coronavirus has been infected.
That’s also an increase from under 3% for much of last week but one that officials say should be attributed to testing people at workplaces with known infections.
“To a large degree, the number that we detect on any given day is going to be how aggressively we tested and whom we test,” Cieslak said.
State officials are also watching hospital admissions for warning signs. Officials said hospitalizations had plateaued but will be monitoring for changes.
The health authority last week reported an overall downtrend from mid-May to the end of the month. Statewide statistics now show a weekly increase from 26 new hospital admissions to 33 for the week ending Saturday, although that’s generally in line with numbers over the month.
Officials cautioned examining the numbers too closely without the benefit of a background in public health investigations.
“There’s lots of different ways that you can look at these numbers, and they’re not always going to lead to valid or useful interpretations,” Jeanne said, noting that the state has a big team of epidemiologists who review the numbers daily.
“We don’t necessarily jump on every little peak or valley because, just from experience and from looking at trends, we know what’s the most important things to look at,” he said.
Most Oregon counties reopened May 15 and Gov. Kate Brown last week approved 29 to move into a second phase. Only Multnomah County has yet to enter Phase 1. Officials asked for Brown’s approval effective this Friday.
Multnomah County has been the site of more than a week’s worth of demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, drawing thousands to downtown Portland each night as part of the national movement.
Oregon health officials said they will monitor new infections for any indication of sickness among protest participants, and that information will be shared publicly.
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Gov. Kate Brown, said in a statement that Brown always expected to see an increase in coronavirus infections upon reopening statewide.
Oregon’s case counts as of Monday stood at 4,922 confirmed or presumed infections out of nearly 150,000 people tested. The death toll is 164.
For now, local and state public health officials have sufficient capacity to trace and isolate new infections and the hospital system is not unduly burdened, Boyle said.
If infection counts climb significantly over the course of the week, he said, “it will be cause for concern in those communities.”
“We will test each step of reopening as we move forward,” Boyle added, “and take a step back if it becomes necessary.”
Mark Friesen and David Cansler contributed to this report.
— Brad Schmidt
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