Governor Announces Coronavirus Response Team As Epidemic Fears Grow

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday announced the creation of a coronavirus response team to coordinate the state’s preparations for a possible outbreak of the respiratory disease in Oregon.

The team will have representatives from more than a dozen state agencies and offices. The team’s creation shows how state public health officials are preparing for a possible outbreak of coronavirus in Oregon during a global epidemic that began in China and has spread to about 50 other countries and territories. Millions in mainland China are now under quarantine, the largest in the world’s history, in an effort to halt the spread of the deadly respiratory illness.

“Let me be clear, as of today there are zero confirmed cases of coronavirus in Oregon, and the risk to Oregonians of contracting the coronavirus remains low," Brown said in a statement. “However, in an escalating global health crisis, we must make sure we are as ready and informed as we can be.”  

There are more than 60 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, but no deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

In California, two patients with no travel history to China have tested positive for coronavirus, another sign that the disease is spreading within communities and not contained.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen and other public health officials spoke Friday to the House Committee on Health Care about coronavirus preparation efforts.

He noted that there are tools that the state could use during a public health emergency, such as court-ordered quarantines and forbidding large gatherings. 

“While they’re out there and available, it would be really extraordinary to need to go to that length,” Allen told lawmakers.

 Worldwide, there have been nearly 2,500 deaths. There are more than 76,000 reported cases of the disease in mainland China and nearly 2,000 in other nations. 

“The purpose of the coronavirus response team is to ensure we are taking every precaution necessary, in coordination with local health authorities, hospitals, community health partners, and school districts, to make sure that Oregon is fully prepared to respond to any outbreaks of the coronavirus and that Oregonians know how they can keep their families safe,” Brown said.

The team will meet regularly and keep the governor updated on the international situation, making recommendations about precautions to take. 

Since the first reported cases of coronavirus, also called COVID-19, emerged, state agencies have reviewed readiness plans and monitored people who may have been exposed to the disease or traveled to mainland China for symptoms such as coughing or fevers. 

This week, the Oregon Health Authority started providing weekly updates about the number of people being monitored and what households can do to stop coronavirus from spreading. The regular release of information from the Oregon Health Authority marks a shift from the agency’s official position last week, when state public health officials refused to provide numbers of how many people were being monitored.

As of Monday, the authority was monitoring 76 people who didn’t have any symptoms, but may have been exposed through travel to China or exposure to someone with the coronavirus. Health officials said Friday that two people with symptoms are being tested, and the results are expected by Tuesday.

Another 178 people who were monitored for two weeks never got sick. Separately, two other people who may have been exposed developed symptoms, but tests showed they were not infected and they have passed  the monitoring period. 

The CDC is passing along information about residents who need monitoring to the state on a daily basis. The state shares that information with local public health officials who contact them within 72 hours, monitor and check for symptoms, and determine if they need testing. 

Oregon Health Authority officials expect to eventually have the ability to test for coronavirus in a state lab. 

Those tests are currently conducted through the CDC in Atlanta.  

Currently, the delay for results is “not terribly significant,” Allen said, adding that if Oregon needs to do more tests it could become more of a bottleneck. 

The CDC came under fire this week over a delay in testing a woman in California for coronavirus because she had not traveled and had no known exposure to someone who had. The agency has since broadened its criteria.

Oregon hospitals and health providers are scaling up their preparedness efforts and the Oregon Health Authority is doing outreach to them and monitoring the system’s availability, the governor’s office said. 

“Oregon has proven its resiliency in preparing for and responding to Ebola, H1N1 influenza, Zika, and other global public health threats,” Allen said in a statement. “Each time, Oregon’s public health and health care systems and their partners have found ways to strengthen our collective response. If the coronavirus comes to Oregon, we will be ready.”

State public health officials advise covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue and disposing of it properly, washing hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer, avoiding close contact with sick people, and cleaning and frequently disinfecting surfaces that people touch. 

Allen told reporters in a conference call that people can plan for possible quarantines by ensuring they have a two-week supply of food and water and by making arrangements with their employer to work from home. The state already gives similar recommendations to people preparing for an earthquake. 

He said people can use their concern to take practical steps to prepare.

“What we really want to encourage people to do is use that concern to be prepared,” Allen said. “The bottom line is make sure you and your family are prepared."

The death rate might be around 1 percent, which is higher than the rate for influenza, which kills thousands of people every year in the United States. The coronavirus response team includes agency directors or representatives from the Department of Administrative Services, Oregon Health Authority, Department of Human Services, Oregon State Police, Oregon Department of Transportation, Office of Emergency Management, Oregon Military Department, Oregon Department of Education, Department of Corrections, Oregon Youth Authority, Secretary of State and Oregon State Treasurer.

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1. 

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