Oregon boosts testing capacity as officials take a second look at health metrics

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Oregon is looking to double its COVID-19 testing capacity as state officials reevaluate health metrics, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced during a press conference on Tuesday.

With an additional 150 million COVID-19 testing kits, Brown said the state anticipates doubling its testing capacity by as many as 80,000 tests a week.

“Testing is an excellent tool to give us a more full tool to find where the virus in hiding in our communities,” Brown said. “With this increased testing capacity, we hope to be able to diagnose people more quickly so they can get the care they need.”

According to Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen, the state has seen a 25% increase in COVID-19 cases since August 31, which marked the end of a five-week decline. But Allen stressed that testing alone will not suppress the virus.

“No amount of testing in and of itself will suppress the spread of the virus,” Allen said. “Testing is a vital part of our strategy to suppress COVID-19 in Oregon. But testing must be supported by robust case investigation, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.”

Oregon and Washington’s largest metro areas are nevertheless seeing lower case rates than the rest of the nation, the Seattle mayor’s office reported.

The state plans on ramping up testing in schools, care facilities, and communities hardest hit by wildfires, Allen said.

Allen said that increased testing comes with risks, though.

“No COVID test is 100% accurate,” Allen said. “A negative is not a free pass.”

According to Senior Health Advisor Dr. Melissa Sutton, positive test results are consistently accurate. Negative test results, however, carry a significant risk of being inaccurate, Sutton said.

On Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority reported 301 new COVID-19 cases and nine more deaths. The news brings the state’s total COVID-19 cases to 35,340 and the death toll to 581.

Only two of victims reported Tuesday had underlying medical conditions, OHA reported, and all were above the age of 60.

Brown and state health officials warned that colder, rainier weather will likely keep more people indoors, posing a greater risk of spreading the virus.

“We are all concerned about what happens when people move indoors,” Allen said. “What I really want people to do as they move indoors is not do it in large groups in unventilated spaces without masks. And I’m as worried about people’s homes as anything. These social gatherings we’ve seen are not typically in commercial spaces, they’re typically in people’s homes.”

While Multnomah County is still in Phase 1 of reopening, Benton, Clatsop and Malheur Counties remain on the state’s Watch List as counties with high case counts and where outbreaks cannot easily be traced to a source.

Allen emphasized that more testing is not a substitute for the state’s health metrics.

However, Brown said on Tuesday that she will be reevaluating the health metrics the state uses to determine school openings and have drawn controversy among some Oregonian parents.

“We’re still exploring this issue but I think it’s fair to say the statewide metric, frankly, is quite challenging for communities around the state,” Brown said. “As you well know metro area Portland looks very different than, frankly, Bend and that looks very different than Ontario.”

Brown said she will be discussing the matter further with school officials over the next few weeks.

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