Study Of COVID-19’s Spread Seeks To Track Thousands Of Oregonians

By Courtney Sherwood (OPB) and Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 6, 2020 9:43 p.m.

Thousands of Oregonians will get postcards next week inviting them to join a massive study of the coronavirus that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said is a key part of her plan to reopen the state.


Dr. David Bangsberg, dean of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, is hoping to recruit 100,000 participants to use a smart thermometer and answer a short health survey each day. Anyone with likely COVID-19 symptoms will be tested for the virus — and if they test positive they'll be connected to treatment.

Related: OSU Survey Plans To Track Spread Of COVID-19 In Corvallis And Beyond

Another 10,000 people who don’t have symptoms will also be tested for COVID-19, to assess its asymptomatic spread across the state.

The so-called "Key to Oregon" study aims to give researchers and government leaders a real-time look at Oregon's coronavirus situation, so that stay-home restrictions can be lifted as soon as the science says it's safe — and so officials can respond rapidly if new waves of infections begin to spread, Bangsberg told "Think Out Loud" on Wednesday.

“In Oregon, we’ve done a great job. We acted early and decisively. It only took nine days from the first COVID death to close the schools, close businesses and issue the stay-at-home order. That was rapid,” he said. “We’re realizing the benefit now, in that we have the fourth-lowest infection rate [in the U.S.], the eighth-lowest mortality, we prevented 75,000 infections and over 1,500 hospitalizations.”


That early action allowed Oregon to donate ventilators to New York, where infections and deaths have been much higher.

“Ironically, however, our success makes us vulnerable to a second wave, because so few people are infected. It is possible that if we don’t act carefully with the data, we don’t act cautiously with an iterative and a stage approach to reopening the economy, that a second wave of infection could be as worse as we feared the first wave could have been,” Bangsberg said.

“It’s more important, now, than ever to use the best information possible to inform the Oregon Health Authority to make sound, data-driven public policy, to open up Oregon in a regional and staged way, just as fast as we can, but without losing the hard-won progress we’ve made to date,” he continued.

In addition to providing a big-picture look at the coronavirus in Oregon, the study aims to enhance the state's contact tracing, which has been key in places like South Korea as they've successfully lowered the virus' spread.

The Oregon Health Authority is in the process of hiring 600 contract tracers to interview people diagnosed with the coronavirus and then research who they’ve been in contact with, in order to identify asymptomatic carriers and slow the spread of infections.

“By identifying one, we may identify additional people, to identify early hot spots of transmission,” Bangsberg said.

Related: Gov. Kate Brown Lays Out COVID-19 Testing And Contact Tracing As Keys To Reopening Oregon

The study also seeks to identify demographic trends, he said — such as whether tribal communities or particular racial groups are being more severely hit by COVID-19, as has been the case in much of the U.S. And it will give state leaders greater confidence if they opt to lower restrictions in some areas of Oregon ahead of others.

Postcards are scheduled to go in the mail May 11 to begin recruiting people for the study, with a second wave of recruiting mail to follow a week later.

Bangsberg said he hopes to have initial information the state can act on by late May or early June.