‘Some counties could reopen May 15’

Gov. Kate Brown has stated that certain counties may begin the reopening process as early as May 15.

Lane County has meanwhile developed its own reopening blueprint

After more than a month of lockdown due to COVID-19, certain Oregon counties may soon be eligible to begin a reopening process, said Gov. Kate Brown during a May 1 press conference.

“In certain parts of the state, we see almost zero cases and few hospitalizations,” she said. “It is my hope that some counties or regions could have the ability to begin the process of reopening as soon as May 15.”

Since the governor issued her “Stay Home, Save Lives” executive order March 23, Oregonians have been under direction to remain home unless necessary and maintain social distancing practices in public while many businesses have been forced to close shop or implement public health protocols.

“Oregonians have taken extraordinary actions to keep each other safe during this pandemic,” said Brown. “We’ve all felt the difficult repercussions of those actions — some much more than others, particularly in our underserved communities.”

The governor cited the need to use science, data and health community expertise in taking steps toward reopening. In particular, Brown noted plans for more testing and tracing of the virus throughout Oregon and outlined three goals of the state’s testing strategy, namely: testing should be available for any Oregonian showing symptoms; testing must be available for those in vulnerable group environments (such as prisons, nursing homes and farm worker housing); and ongoing randomized testing should take place throughout the state.

Regarding the last goal, Brown announced the implementation of “Be the Key,” a statewide plan in partnership with Oregon Health and Science University which will ask 100,000 random residents to voluntarily participate in a year-long study to better track the extent of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“This program is a game-changer,” said Brown.

Letter invitations to join the program will be sent out to Oregonians on May 11.

While officials at the press conference pointed to a hopeful reopening pathway, Oregon’s state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger issued a note of caution.

“I want to underscore that the strategy is not without risk,” he said. “Our projections show that the disease will increase in Oregon as we open up — that more people will be hospitalized and possibly even die. So, we need these measures in place to mitigate that.”

The announcement of the strategies follows the governor’s April 20 release of the state’s framework for relaxing restrictions, “Reopening Oregon: A Public Health Framework for Restarting Public Life and Business.” The framework includes specific gating criteria and preparedness strategies that must be met prior to moving through a three-phase strategy of lifting restrictions.

Lane County Blueprint

Based upon this framework, Lane County has recently created its own “Blueprint for Opening Lane County.” County commissioners voted unanimously on May 5 to send a request to Gov. Brown that Lane County begin the first phase of reopening based on content within the blueprint. With the same vote, commissioners also certified that the county’s first responders had sufficient PPE, a requirement from Oregon counties as part of the governor’s framework for reopening.

Lane County’s blueprint identifies a pathway for relaxing restrictions in such a way as to limit the resurgence of disease while addressing the significant economic toll of the continued stay-at-home policy. Seven areas of consideration are listed for the gradual progress of reopening:

• Falling COVID-19 cases over 14 days: The virus’s incubation period lasts 14 days and a phased reopening would take this into account, allowing for a total of two incubation periods before moving to the next phase. 

Lane County has not recorded a significant growth of cases in weeks, with data showing that an overall flattening of the curve was achieved around April 15. 

As of press time, the county has recorded 55 total positive cases and two deaths related to the virus.

• Availability of local testing: The county’s minimal target is 500 tests per day on average, though optimally 1,000. While testing capacity has increased, the county has yet to break the 200 per-day mark. 

Lane County Public Health has proposed to partner with two local hospital labs to increase testing.

• Sufficient contact tracing resources: Though the county is currently meeting worker demand to conduct contact tracing according to the caseload, the uncertainty of actual cases throughout the county has prompted health officials to plan for an increase in contact tracing teams.

• Plans for a rapid scale-up in case of a second wave: Lane County reports that it currently is prepared for a 20 percent increase in hospital bed capacity and is well-stocked on ventilators.

• Sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE): While the county reports sufficient on-hand and 30-day stocks of PPE such as masks, N95 respirators and gloves, there is an admitted shortage of gowns and face shields.

• A blueprint for easing restrictions: The county’s recently-created blueprint along with the governor’s framework are intended to serve as a guide to reopening.

• Oregon Health Authority support for restriction relaxation: Because county lines are meaningless to the virus, Lane County is deferring to the state’s guidance for a reopening roadmap.

With these criteria in mind, reopening would take place in three phases, gradually easing up on restrictions which affect business practices, social gathering limits and access to public institutions. 

While this framework will largely follow state guidelines, Lane County commissioners also acknowledged in their May 5 meeting that some considerations may need to be made on a local level.

To this point, commissioners also voted unanimously to send a letter to Gov. Brown asking for flexibility to review specific situations on a case-by-case basis and be granted some exceptions based on data and adequate risk assessment.

Though County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky offered a note of caution about the practicality of this flexibility and some commissioners expressed reservations about the county’s liability, the notion that some degree of local control would ultimately be beneficial carried the vote forward.

Cottage Grove, for its part, will likely rely on county and state health authorities for reopening guidance.

“If they say we can open, we’ll say, ‘Okay how can we reopen and know that we’re safe?’” said City Manager Richard Meyers. “It will be relying on the health officials’ professional view and not political bodies trying to decide it.”