Open Letter To Oregon: You Can Stop Coronavirus In Oregon

Our fight against the coronavirus -- COVID-19 -- has entered a stark new phase. Over the weekend, the first Oregonian lost his life to the virus. Each day, COVID-19 appears in more counties, more communities. Governor Brown has taken additional extraordinary actions to stop the spread of the virus – limiting public gatherings, restricting restaurants to take out and delivery service and extending school closures. 

Social distancing measures are urgent and necessary to slow spread of COVID-19

These sweeping actions will create profound disruption and hardship in all our daily lives. The impact of these decisions will ripple through homes, schools, communities across Oregon – and through our state economy. These restrictions will demand unprecedented sacrifice from all of us. But they are urgent, necessary and justified in the face of the COVID-19 threat. Every one of us must help. We all have the power to stop COVID-19 and save the lives of people we care about. 

I know many Oregonians are worried about whether they or a loved one will get sick from the virus. Across the state, all of us fearful of the fallout from these actions and efforts across the nation to stop COVID-19.

Here’s what we know: Our current projections tell us that, if left unchecked, approximately 75,000 Oregonians could catch COVID-19 by mid-May. Without intervention, those numbers would rapidly continue to expand. No one is immune. There is no vaccine available to stop the virus. There is no treatment.

Most people who contract coronavirus (about 8 in 10) will experience mild symptoms, but during that time you could pass the virus on to others. Yet, Oregon’s hospitals do not have the capacity to treat the remaining 20 percent of patients who may need acute care if people all get sick at once. 

We need to flatten the curve of new COVID-19 infections to protect our hospitals

If Oregon’s health care system is swamped by a sudden spike in cases, hospitals in communities across the state will not have enough beds and life-saving equipment, such as ventilators, to manage the crisis. Clinicians won’t be able to save everyone.

But there’s hope: The expanded ‘social distancing’ measures Governor Brown ordered today are designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and blunt the looming spike in new cases. This is often called “flattening” the epidemiological curve – i.e., spread the number of cases out over time to protect hospital so they can serve the patients who need them. 

Oregon’s health care providers and public health officials have prepared for a pandemic. We have a plan. More than a decade ago hospitals and state health officials designed a blueprint to avert exactly the kind of potential catastrophe we are facing with COVID-19. That plan will help health care providers across Oregon: 

  • Manage a surge in demand for medical care and quickly and dramatically expand capacity to treat more patients. 
  • Maintain critical functions. 
  • Locate and secure alternate sites to deliver medical care. 
  • Secure needed medical supplies, like protective equipment for health care workers. 

And we’re putting that plan into action, in partnership with hospitals across Oregon. 

You Can Slow The Spread Of COVID-19

But our ultimate success in preventing a catastrophe will depend on each of us taking responsibility for these basic actions. 

  • All of us need to wash our hands for 20 seconds or more frequently throughout the day. Try to avoid touching your face. Avoid close contact with others (keep a distance of 3-6 feet), especially people who are sick. Work from home if you can. 
  • If you are 60 years of age or older, avoid groups of people, including small family gatherings. Stay in your home as much as possible. People your age and above are at greatest risk of being hospitalized. The same cautions apply for people who have other serious medical conditions (e.g., heart disease or diabetes). If you have a chronic medical condition, you are also at high risk, no matter what your age.
  • If you are sick, stay home and avoid contact with others. Talk to your health care provider if you want to be tested for COVID-19. Talk to your health care provider before you visit a clinic or hospital emergency department. It’s critical for all of us to make sure hospitals are seeing only those people who need hospital care.
  • If you are an employer, direct your employees to work from home if they can. Stagger schedules so fewer people are working together at one time. Send anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 home. 
  • If you are a civic leader: Support protective social distancing actions. Use your voice to encourage people in your community to take responsible steps to stem the spread of COVID-19 among your neighbors.

COVID-19 Testing Is Expanding But It’s Still Not Enough 

We know many people are anxious to be tested for COVID-19. The reality is that Oregon’s state public health laboratory has received limited testing supplies from the federal government. 

Oregon health officials have prioritized our limited testing resources for the sickest people and the people who are most at-risk. We know Oregonians would not want us to squander this vital resource indiscriminately.

We are doing all we can to open the testing pipeline. Several large hospitals have committed to begin testing. Outpatient clinicians are ordering tests from commercial laboratories. Those large commercial laboratories are reporting their results to OHA – we include their findings in our daily reports to the public.

However, it’s important for Oregonians to understand testing supplies remain limited due to federal decisions. While we’ve authorized outpatient clinicians to use their discretion, we know they cannot order a test for everyone who wants one. They will continue to exercise their clinical judgement, as commercial labs work hard to ramp up their capacity. We simply don’t have all the testing capability we want.

In the meantime, public health officials and our hospital partners will continue to focus our limited testing resources judiciously over the coming weeks, where they are most desperately needed. We will continue to keep Oregonians informed about our efforts to expand COVID-19 testing across the state. 

We Are All In This Together 

COVID-19 is in our communities. The virus does not discriminate. We cannot combat COVID-19 if we turn on each other or stigmatize people who test positive and become ill. That only puts sick people and the broader community at-risk because it discourages people from getting tested, getting care and staying home.

But it’s not too late to act. The measures we all take today – from Governor’s Brown’s urgent decisions to the actions each of us take in our personal lives – will determine how many people our hospitals can treat, how many lives they can save and how long the pandemic will last. We know that places around the world have adopted strong social distancing measures have curbed the pace of new infections. In places that have been slow to act, new cases surged. Lives were lost that could have been saved. 

Oregonians have always worked together to overcome daunting challenges. We will do it again to stem the spread of the coronavirus and save lives in our state.

Patrick Allen is the director of the Oregon Health Authority.

 

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