COVID-19 testing decrease attributed to wildfires, poor air quality

By SARA CLINE (Associated Press/Report for America)
SALEM, Ore. Sept. 20, 2020 3:18 p.m.

The availability of coronavirus testing in Oregon decreased last week due to the massive wildfires and the hazardous air quality that stretched across the state

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The availability of coronavirus testing in Oregon decreased last week due to the massive wildfires and the hazardous air quality that stretched across the state.

Despite this, officials said Friday that data continues to show a decline in the rate of COVID-19 transmission in the state. Many outdoor testing sites in Oregon and the state's laboratory that processes and holds tests were closed this week.

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In August, Oregon performed an average of 32,000 tests per week. Last week, as thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes because of wildfires, Oregon tested 19,465 people, officials said.

To date, Oregon has tested approximately 616,600 people for COVID-19.

Symptoms from wildfire smoke and COVID-19 overlap — cough, runny nose, fatigue, difficulty breathing and headaches. But smoke impacts don’t typically include fever, chills, muscle or body aches, vomiting, loss of taste or smell or diarrhea.

Since the start of the massive wildfires, about 10% of all emergency room visits across the state are for asthma type symptoms — an increase.

Smoke across the state began to clear overnight Thursday and Friday, as many communities reported a return to healthy air quality over the weekend.

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The Oregon Health Authority reported 266 new coronavirus cases Saturday, bringing the state total to 30,599. The state’s death toll climbed by 5 to remains at 525.

The health authority's most recent COVID-19 modeling shows that the current rate of transmission is continuing in a downward trend that began in mid-July, meaning that each case is generating less than one other case.

If transmission continues at the current rate, by early October new cases could decrease to 80 a day.

However, officials warn that it is unclear what effects the evacuations and the poor air quality might have on COVID-19 transmission.

While testing centers may have been closed for a portion of the week, health experts used resources elsewhere in attempt to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 — specifically among firefighters and evacuees.

Earlier last week, the state reported that 3,185 Oregonians, who fled from the fires, were being sheltered. Most people were placed in non-congregate shelters and hotels to minimize the risk of exposure.

In addition, firefighters who have traveled from across the state and the country to fight the wildfires are being screened for coronavirus symptoms.

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Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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