Oregonians saving themselves with ‘stay home’ but risks of relaxing rules are high, report says

Vale resident Pauline Sheehan has been sewing cotton face masks and giving them away for free. These masks were set out on her porch on Monday. (Yadira Lopez/The Enterprise)

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Measures imposed by Gov. Kate Brown appear to have dramatically slowed the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon. Analysts say keeping some businesses closed and people at home should continue for at least another month, according to a report issued Saturday.

The latest projection showed Oregon could end up with fewer than 20,000 people diagnosed as infected with the novel coronavirus by May 18. If the state eased up on restrictions now, “new infections would quickly climb to more than 60,000 by May 18,” according to a statement by the Oregon Health Authority.

As of Saturday, state officials reported 1,447 people have tested positive for the respiratory virus that can prove fatal, especially in older people. To date, 51 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.

The new report, prepared by the Institute of Disease Modeling in Washington, estimated another 5,500 Oregonians are infected who have yet to be diagnosed. That’s a concern to health authorities because personal contact is the primary way the disease is transmitted and people can be infected without showing symptoms.

But the new report’s clearest message was that Oregon has to stay the course in basic hygiene such as frequent hand washing and following orders put in place over the last month by Brown. She issued increasingly stringent mandates, stepping into a full “stay home” order on March 23 that also shuttered businesses such as theaters and hair salons.

“Oregonians are saving lives by staying home,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer.

With warmer weather, some Oregonians are chafing at restrictions.

Backing off the mandates would cost Oregon dearly in increased infections, deaths and extended hospital care, the report said.

The report estimates that an infected person may contact an average of 20 people.

“Any relaxation of the current aggressive control measure is likely to result in epidemic resurgence,” the Institute of Disease Modeling said. “Current aggressive interventions will need to be maintained in order to decrease the number of active infections.”

The report said approximately two out of 100 infected people will die from the disease.

The report said state measures up to March 22 “have kept current numbers of active infections growing relatively slowly” and Brown’s actions the following day “appear to have reversed the growth of the pandemic.”

Without those measures, the report said, Oregon’s health care system would at the moment be dealing with an estimated 25,000 infected people.

Health officials in Oregon from the start of the pandemic have been concerned that the state’s hospitals would be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Hospitals and other medical providers were directed to suspend non-elective procedures to free up supplies and staff for the surge.

So far, the state’s hospitals have been able to keep up with influx of COVID-19 patients. In its Saturday report, the Oregon Health Authority reported 334 people had been hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID 19, with 54 on ventilators.

The report also found that patients need longer hospitalization than earlier anticipated, with severe cases requiring up to 15 days in the hospital and critical cases requiring as much as a month.

The projection said if current trends hold, the need for hospital beds “will remain constant or begin to decrease.”

That could change, the report said, “if healthcare workers cannot work due to infection of family-care needs.”

The report said there was an “urgent need” to increase testing for COVID-19 to give authorities a clearer picture of the spread of the disease in Oregon. As of Saturday, 28,638 people in a state of four million have been tested, according to the state. Of those, 27,191 were negative.

Malheur County as of Saturday recorded three people infected with COVID-19 and 133 people testing negative for the disease.

“It will not be possible to relax social distancing measures and avoid an epidemic rebound without significantly increased testing,” the report said. “Increased testing must be coupled with detailed contact tracing, asymptomatic testing of at-risk individuals, and likely the quarantining of infected individuals away from households.”

Contact editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]