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Oregon Officials Devise Coronavirus Plan, Hoping To Avoid Fate Of Washington State

the capitol building behind pink blossoms
Oregon State Capitol in Salem. | ROBERT AUGHENBAUGH
March 4, 2020

Oregon state regulators have a blueprint to prevent coronavirus from sweeping through a long-term care facility as it did in Washington state, where 10 people have died.

The plan would be set into motion in a facility with a positive case and would involve restricting the movement of residents and limiting visitors. The state’s plan covers nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory care and other long-term care facilities where people now come and go and residents often dine together. 

Protecting Oregon’s aging and vulnerable population is a critical issue in the face of a new virus that’s highly contagious and has a high death rate -- about 3.4% according to the World Health Organization. In Washington state, 10 people have died, including nine in Kirkland where the virus hit a nursing home. Another person died in California. Seniors and other people with compromised immune systems face the highest risk -- just like with influenza.. 

Oregon has three positive COVID-19 cases, two in Washington County and one in Umatilla County. None is in a long-term facility and no one has died.

For now, regulators at Oregon Department of Human Services are in prevention mode, said Mike McCormick, interim director of the aging and people with disabilities division of the Oregon Department of Human Services. He spoke Wednesday to a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers who serve on human services committees. The meeting was one of the few activities in the state capitol during the second week of a Republican-led walkout over a climate change bill that has closed regular business in the House or Senate.

In the event of a positive case in a facility, the state would ask managers to restrict new admissions and visitors and either minimize or eliminate congregated dining, with meals delivered to rooms instead. There also would be mandatory infection control training for staff and, as space allows, private rooms for residents. 

Officials said they would move quickly if someone becomes infected. 

It’s not clear when the state would test suspect cases, but new, expanded federal testing guidelines allow anyone to get tested with a doctor’s order. People who become infected with coronavirus can infect others before they show symptoms, and the illness resembles the flu.
Oregon has more than 2,400 long-term care facilities, from large assisted living homes to adult foster homes with just five or fewer residents, according to a 2019 report. 

McCormick and lawmakers acknowledged that facility administrators need to balance the need of   residents to socially interact with the need to prevent an outbreak. He said some facilities have already started to screen visitors before allowing them to enter. 

“I’m not going to lie to you,” McCormick said. “This is a really tough issue because we’re balancing social wellness with a need to prevent a pandemic in the facilities.”

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland and chair of the House Committee on Human Services and Housing, said it’s important not to “jump to extremes.” 

“Visits from family are so important,” she said. 

Officials also said that some steps, like private rooms for residents when there is a case may be a challenge, if not impossible if space is limited.

Visiting procedures are already changing even without a positive case. On Saturday, the department put out guidance informing long-term care providers they can restrict visitors without facing any regulatory penalties if they can show they acted in good faith out of concern about the virus spreading. 

“Right now, the number one strategy is prevention,” McCormick said.

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