Our Pandemic Summer

Your Burning Coronavirus Questions, Answered

Reading the tea leaves (a.k.a. data) on where Oregon goes from here

By Julia Silverman June 12, 2020

In a press conference on Friday, Gov. Kate Brown called for a "yellow light" in Oregon, effectively pausing the state's reopening efforts due to a worrisome uptick in several key indicators, including hospitalization trends. 

Remember coronavirus? The insidious virus that sent us all scuttling inside our homes this spring for fear of infecting each other and overrunning local hospitals?  

The whole state of Oregon got a smack-upside-the-head reminder this week that the novel coronavirus is still very much a thing, when Gov. Kate Brown decreed she was pausing the entire state’s reopening efforts due to a worrisome uptick in several key indicators, including hospitalization trends.  

Yes, the pandemic is still with us, despite being somewhat crowded out of the headlines in recent weeks by the incredible outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the subsequent national soul-searching over police brutality and systemic racism. Here are answers to some key questions about the virus and us as the state heads into its second season with COVID-19. 

Over the past few weeks, protests have sent thousands of people from around the state onto the streets to rally against police brutality and systemic racism. Is that contributing to the rise in numbers? 

Too soon to tell. It’s been about two weeks since the first protest, which is the time in which symptoms would start to manifest. Multnomah County has tried to get ahead of this, though, says Tri-County Public Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, by encouraging anyone who has been to a protest and is showing even mild symptoms to get tested. Fewer than five of the people in Multnomah County who’ve tested positive in the past week told contact tracers they had been to a protest, Vines added—but Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, pointed out in a Friday-morning press conference that not everyone will be eager to disclose where they’ve been to the contact tracers who act as detectives to track the spread of the virus.

The governor’s “yellow light” order lasts for one week. Will Multnomah County businesses—including gyms, nail salons, and restaurants who want to offer socially distant in-house dining—be allowed to open up on June 19? 

A: It depends on the data. If you’re playing along from home, the numbers to keep an eye on are, thusly:  

  • Hospitalizations statewide. As of Friday, June 12, there were 69 patients in hospitals who were confirmed to have COVID. Only 10 days ago, there were only 46 confirmed hospitalizations statewide. Remember, we went into lockdown in the first place in large part to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed; if these numbers continue to rise, we could see not just a pause but a rollback.
  • The number of cases that can be traced to confined settings versus “community spread.” A confined setting is a nursing home, or a food processing plant, or anywhere else where large numbers of people work together inside and can’t easily practice physical distancing. Cases like this are easier to pinpoint—tracers can find those who might have been exposed and encourage them to self-isolate, (theoretically) stopping the spread. But the “community spread” that made up 40 percent of recent cases in Multnomah County? Much more difficult. 
  • Results from testing. Health officials were prepared for our number of known cases to rise as Oregon increased its testing capacity and lowered barriers to getting a test. (Remember when you had to be either at death’s door or in the NBA to get a test? Now, you need only to be showing mild symptoms to get a doctor to OK a test, and certain high-risk groups, including people of color and nursing home workers, can theoretically be tested without showing any symptoms at all.) But it’s all relative: Ideally, the per capita percentage of those testing positive would remain flat or decline. Instead, in Oregon, that jumped to 3 percent in the first week of June, up from 1.9 percent the week before. That’s still well below the levels in most states, but it is enough to raise red flags for Oregon Health Authority. 

What about face masks? With numbers trending in the wrong direction, will the request to wear one indoors or if you can’t be sure you can stay six feet apart from others turn into a mandate? 

Maybe, depending on where you live. So far, Brown has stuck to a strong recommendation for mask wearing, as opposed to a mandate, citing concerns about enforcement bias from communities of color, in particular. In Multnomah County, a coalition of doctors, led by County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an ER physician, has been pushing for an executive order, and a spokeswoman for Brown, Liz Merah, said Friday, “The Governor has stated that she would support local jurisdictions that want to put into place face-covering ordinances.”  

Does the “yellow light” mean that we still need to stay home, or within a 50-mile radius of home? 

This is another one where the state is using honey rather than vinegar to catch its flies, so to speak. Merah says there is no “specific travel limit (such as 50 miles),” but that the state is asking Oregonians to “minimize recreational trips to counties outside where they live.” 

How is all this going over outside of the metro area, anyway? 

Not so well. Read this.

Got more questions? Get in touch at [email protected] and we’ll try to find out an answer. 

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