A week after Deschutes County successfully helped lead the charge to reopen Oregon, a spike in COVID-19 cases is testing the public health system’s ability to track and contain the virus.
Contact tracers have investigated 26 new positive test results since May 15, when the county entered Phase 1 of a reopening plan. What the investigators found shows a changing portrait of the pandemic’s victims in Central Oregon.
“Our largest age group is 20 to 29 years,” said Deschutes’ public health preparedness coordinator Morgan Emerson.
Related: COVID-19 In Oregon: By The Numbers
Previously, those infected in Central Oregon's most populous county tended to be older, while how they got sick was unknown, travel-related, or from a member of the same household. Since reopening, Emerson said most of the positive cases have been identified via contact tracing, the practice of tracking down and monitoring people who have been in close proximity to someone who is infected.
At least 18 of the most recently infected people were exposed to the virus through social gatherings attended by multiple families, according to Emerson.
She declined to give details about the type of gatherings, citing health privacy laws, but said the increase in cases was not linked to a particular business, occupational hazard or housing.
“Finding these cases means the public health system is working,” she said, adding that officials expect they successfully contained the outbreak through the voluntary isolation of exposed households.
But heading into Memorial Day weekend with relaxed restrictions and residents weary of social isolation, health officials are braced for potentially deadly barbecues.
“All it takes is one COVID-19 positive person to attend a barbecue, or a block party, or a picnic, and then we’ll have another situation where we are investigating multiple cases,” Emerson said.
Deschutes was permitted by state health authorities to reopen despite having a fraction of the requisite number of contact tracers on staff. The county employs six full-time positions, and elected officials promised to ramp up if needed.
According to Emerson, the latest outbreak mobilized all the existing resources.
“This team works shifts that cover 7 days a week to assure that all cases are investigated rapidly,” she said.
State health officials and Gov. Kate Brown have warned counties that reopened to meet health metrics around contact tracing, testing and hospitalizations. If any county fails to meet essential marks, they risk returning to the full restrictions under Brown’s original stay at home order.