Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called on community leaders, business owners and citizens Friday to step up their compliance with guidelines to defeat the spread of COVID-19 — warning that if that doesn’t happen, mandatory restrictions will be necessary, despite their accompanying hardships for Oregon’s economy and households.
“If we don’t step up to the next level then I am going to have to take more restrictive action,” she said. Brown said her primary goal is to get COVID-19 circulation low enough to reopen schools for certain students. She said the daily tally of new cases would be her measuring stick: that figure has stabilized at about 300 but it needs to drop to roughly 60.
“We need to see much more rapid decline in case numbers and we need to see it quickly,” Brown said during a media briefing.
The governor said the reopening of schools later this fall would depend on how well Oregon can rapidly reduce the spread of the coronavirus and curb the number of cases of people whose infections are resulting in COVID-19.
“Our infection rate is still too high to get most of our kids safely back in our classrooms,” Brown said. It would take about 200 days at the current rate of declining spread before Brown would be ready to approve the return of students to schools.
Normally, schools would be preparing to reopen in the next few weeks. But according to the latest model by the Oregon Health Authority, if nothing changes, Oregon will see about 900 new cases per week for the next four weeks.
“We are not close” to being able to reopen schools, said state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger, who joined Brown at the briefing. At current transmission rates, school reopenings are months away.
Sidelinger said that, right now, the rate of transmission is too high. Currently that rate — called an R0, or r-naught, is about 1. That means that each person who gets sick will infect one more person. He said that the latest model shows that if Oregon can reduce the rate so that each person infects less than one new person, schools could reopen much sooner. “It’s six weeks away if we all continue to do our job.”
The governor’s goal is to initially open schools for certain students whose educational success are most dependent on in-classroom learning: younger students, those with special needs, English language learners, and students who might need additional academic support.
Brown said Oregonians can choose their collective way forward, “but one path has a far greater cost than the other.”
She made clear that her preference is for businesses and residents to comply with her recommended guidelines: wearing face coverings, complying with isolation and quarantine policies when exposed to the coronavirus, practicing safe social distancing, and cooperating with contact tracing.
Sidelinger said that one major source of transmission is informal gatherings that violate social distancing rules. Those gatherings can involve people from several households, or even several communities. One gathering can lead to “many cases in many places,” Sidelinger said.
He and the governor both called out counties and cities where those social distancing rules aren’t enforced.
“Officials need to get creative about enforcing rules against large social gatherings. Too many cases over the summer have come from these informal social get-togethers,” Brown said.
There are also reports of community leaders and law enforcement officers refusing to comply with or enforce social distancing guidelines. The governor said that’s unacceptable: “Not enforcing these requirements puts entire communities at risk.”
If that doesn’t happen, she said, she will be compelled to limit the social spread of the virus by ordering businesses to restrict or close their operations and through travel restrictions that require people to quarantine if they’ve been out of state or have visited a hot spot.
She said the consequential economic losses will have undesirable consequences.
“Economic costs have real health consequences,” Brown said. Families that lose jobs and income could be forced to skip meals, deal with mental health problems and more.
Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said there have been 24,414 confirmed or presumed COVID-19 cases and 414 deaths in the state since the start of the pandemic.