Oregon officials say they are on track to receive 6 million at-home COVID-19 test kits, containing 12 million individual tests, by the end of January. That includes nearly a million test kits expected in the next seven days.
The anticipated increase in testing capacity comes as Oregonians are stuck in lines to get tested in person, and finding empty store shelves where at-home tests should be, all while watching case numbers rise across the state.
“While it may seem like a COVID-19 test is impossible to find, Oregon’s testing volume has never been higher than it is today,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said during a press conference Thursday.
The state ordered the test kits near the end of last year. So far, it has received fewer than a million.
And although Oregon has heightened its testing capacity, demand for COVID-19 tests has continued to increase with the spread of the omicron variant.
The state averaged more than 7,600 diagnoses per day over the past week — a 128% increase over the previous week. On Thursday, Oregon reported 9,797 new COVID-19 cases.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations are also on the rise. Allen with the health authority said that, as of Wednesday, there were more than 750 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. That’s a 45% increase over the past week.
Oregon’s distribution of tests
Some states have offered consumers direct access to test kits, but Oregon will not be doing that, Allen said.
Instead, he said, the 6 million at-home test kits will be distributed to hospitals, schools, local public health authorities, tribal governments, and community-based organizations that serve underrepresented communities. He said they’ll also go to Head Start programs, and to organizations that serve agricultural workers and people experiencing homelessness.
“Our test distribution strategy is grounded in fairness and equity,” Allen said. “We are prioritizing the 6 million tests we’ve purchased for organizations serving people who are most exposed or most vulnerable to COVID-19, or people who have less access to a test.”
The focus on underserved populations is mirrored in the state’s plan for the COVID-19 treatment, Paxlovid.
Allen noted that the Oregon Health Authority is supporting ten high-volume vaccine sites in the western half of the state, six of which have testing available.
“We are working to add testing to the remaining sites by next week through partnerships with Curative and the federal government,” Allen said.
Starting Saturday, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde will open a high-volume vaccination site at Spirit Mountain Casino and testing will be added in the next week, Allen said.
“We’ve also requested three additional federal testing sites in the Willamette Valley,” he said.
Allen said the demand for testing will remain high for several more weeks.
Allen said people who are at low risk for COVID-19 complications should assume their symptoms are COVID-19 if they are feeling sick and they don’t have access to tests. They should follow isolation protocols laid out by the U.S, Centers for Disease Control and prevention by isolating from other people for five days. After five days, if symptoms are gone, people are advised to return to normal activities while still wearing a well-fitted face mask.
Allen acknowledged that the state health authority’s daily case counts are missing many at-home test results, as well as undiagnosed cases. The agency announced Wednesday that it’s set up a new hotline and website for people to report positive test results from at-home kits.
“To be completely transparent, we are likely approaching the maximum capacity our testing system has to identify cases,” Allen said.
Allen said hospitalizations and deaths will continue to represent the most reliable and significant metrics, due to testing limitations.
School closures continue
“Only a few dozen” public and private schools around the state have closed temporarily due to both student and employee absences because of COVID-19, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said Thursday. However, as Gill was laying out the numbers, more school districts were announcing more closures — including district-wide closures for North Clackamas and Gresham-Barlow school districts, and two additional schools in the Portland Public Schools district.
“The [omicron] surge is predicted to increase for the next two weeks before peaking,” Gill said.
Gill said having in-person classes remains “the highest priority for our state.” Schools and districts are only making the switch to distance learning when they are severely understaffed or “if community spread requires it,” he said.
Portland Public Schools announced Thursday that Franklin High School and Tubman Middle School will close Friday and transition to distance learning from next Tuesday to the end of next week.
Those schools follow other recent schools and districts around the state that have also announced temporary closures, including Salem-Keizer, the second-largest school district in Oregon, after Portland Public.