Citing a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kate Brown ordered a one-week pause on decisions that would allow counties to advance to the next phase of reopening.
Brown said her decision is a cautionary “yellow light” to keep the state from moving forward too quickly in reopening. The pause means that Brown will wait a week before making a decision to either advance counties to the next phase or continue waiting for the COVID-19 trend to improve.
“I know how frustrating it is to move slowly,” Brown said Friday in a press conference.
Brown added: “My job however is to make tough decisions even when they are unpopular and when it comes to the health and safety of Oregonians, the buck stops here.”
The move does not reverse any of the reopening so far. The three-phase plan for reopening unfolds on the county level, meaning counties can advance to in stages after the governor signs off on their applications.
The pause applies equally to all counties, regardless of their phase of reopening. The state is gradually reopening stores, restaurants, bars and other public gathering places after shutting down in March to slow the spread of the virus. As part of the reopening, the state has spelled out detailed procedures that businesses and public agencies must follow.
Twenty-nine counties are in Phase 2, which allows larger gatherings with social distancing and sectors to open up like bowling alleys and movie theaters.
Six counties are in Phase 1, which allows restaurants and bars to open with social distancing, personal services like haircuts and spa treatments by appointment and gatherings of up to 25 people. Phase 3 will allow gatherings in large venues, but a vaccine or cure will be necessary before that happens, state public health officials have said.
Three of the Phase 1 counties -- Hood River, Marion and Polk -- have filed applications with the state to advance to the second phase. Those applications are now on hold. The other three counties -- Clackamas, Lincoln and Washington -- have not yet applied for Phase 2.
Multnomah County is the only one that has not moved to Phase 1. It submitted its application to move to Phase 1 on June 5. County officials initially expected approval on Friday before Brown sent out a statement late Thursday about the one-week hold on all applications.
“This was not the outcome we anticipated when we submitted our application on June 5,’’ said Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury in a statement. “I understand how difficult this is for businesses, employers and families. But the increase in (COVID-19) cases and delay in reopening is a reminder that we are very much still in this.’’
Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the authority reported 178 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily total ever. The authority reported 142 confirmed cases after the Friday press conference, bringing the state total to 5,377.
There is more testing available, but the rate of positive test results is rising. The overall rate of positive test results has increased to 3%. That’s up from 1.9%. Allen said he wants to see the rate of positive tests staying flat or going down.
New hospitalizations are trending upwards. The state’s seven-day rolling average has increased in the past week to six from four new daily hospitalizations involving patients with severe COVID-19, Allen said.
State public health officials have three scenarios for what may happen now. The most optimistic projection is that the spike in hospitalizations is temporary and case counts will return to a steady level. The less optimistic projection is that cases will continue to increase during the next month. The worst-case scenario projects that 925 new infections a day would become the norm, with an increase in 17 new severe cases each day by July 3.
“It’s too soon to say which scenario is going to play out,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon state health officer and epidemiologist.
In Multnomah County, 40% of new cases currently cannot be traced back to an outbreak or other known case. That’s a concern for public health officials because it indicates that COVID-19 is widespread. County officials say contact tracing efforts are ongoing.
Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Health Officer, said the county was confident in its Phase 1 application before the one week pause and knew cases would increase.
“The state, of course, has a different context and they have to look statewide,” Vines said.
“The state has not specifically told me anything specifically we need to do or change” to our application, Vines said, adding she expects to hear more soon.
Vines said the county was in contact with the state Thursday about its application and heard “early concerns” before Brown’s announcement.