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Oregon Running Low On Coronavirus Tests

March 10, 2020

The Oregon Health Authority has run low on coronavirus tests.

A spokesman told The Lund Report on Tuesday that the agency only had enough materials to run 130 more tests. It originally received a testing kit, with a capacity for 1,500 samples. It's not clear why there were so few left. To date, the state public health lab in Hillsboro has tested 295 people. Only 15 have been positive and the results for 67 are pending.

The latest case, announced at mid-day Tuesday, is a patient in Multnomah County who's being treated at Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "The individual had no known contact with a confirmed case, and had not traveled from a country where the virus is circulating, so the case is being investigated as a community-acquired case," the health authority said in a statement.

The agency has had to test people up to four times to confirm the results, the spokesman said.

On Tuesday, the state received more materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which created the test.

"We are working with the CDC to evaluate our capacity at this time," a statement said.

The state has limited testing to people who are hospitalized with symptoms of a coronavirus infection, which include dry cough, fever and pneumonia, and who first test negative for influenza. An emergency room physician told The Lund Report that it makes sense to do a testing triage because it's rare for someone to come down with two viral infections at the same time. The physician also said that there's no reason to test anyone without symptoms because even if they are infected, it might not show up on a test because the infection would be at a low level.

The test kits and testing materials were donated to Oregon by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each test costs the state about $350 in staff time, excluding courier costs.

Besides the patient announced on Tuesday, there are two other people hospitalized in the Portland area with the infection. One is at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro and the other is at OHSU Hospital. There are at least five other people at OHSU Hospital who may have the virus. All of the patients are in isolation in negative pressure rooms which prevent air carrying viral particles from contaminating adjacent areas of the hospital. Oregon has a total of 510 isolation rooms, with 251 in the Portland metro area, according to the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. The health authority spokesman said that Oregon hospitals have 688 ventilators, which are needed when a patient has a severe respiratory infection.

At Kaiser Permanente's Hillsboro hospital, about 45 staff members are still on administrative leave over fears they may have become infected. That compares with 75 staff members who were originally put on paid leave, said Michael Foley, Kaiser's spokesman.

So far, hospitals have not run out of supplies, said Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. But they could run short. Oregon lawmakers on Monday approved $5 million in funding to fight the spread of coronavirus and for treatment. That vote of the emergency board also opens the door for the state to spend an expected $20 million from the federal government.

The health authority spokesman said the state expects to receive more materials from the CDC this week, giving it the ability to test 4,800 people. 

The state won't know how widespread the disease is until it conducts more tests.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or via Twitter @LynnePDX.