Oregon Health Lab Runs COVID-19 Test For Governor, Contradicting Guidelines

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Portland, Ore. March 31, 2020 8:10 p.m.

It’s now certain: Gov. Kate Brown does not have the novel coronavirus.

That's the conclusion that came back when Brown, 59, decided "out of an abundance of caution" to be tested on Monday, after OPB asked about her showing signs of illness.


“That test did come back negative,” Charles Boyle, Brown’s press secretary, said Tuesday morning.

But for Oregonians who’ve had difficulties in obtaining testing — and sometimes faced dayslong waits for results once they do — the news might raise another question: How did the governor get her results so quickly?

According to Boyle, Brown was able to tap a resource that's been off limits to others with similar symptoms. The test-strapped Oregon State Public Health Lab analyzed the governor’s results.

“The test was arranged by her personal physician yesterday afternoon, and was sent to the state lab which processed the test,” Boyle wrote.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issues a shut down of restaurants at a press conference in Portland, Oregon, on March 16, 2020.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issues a shut down of restaurants at a press conference in Portland, Oregon, on March 16, 2020.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

While the quick testing likely reassures Brown as she helms the state's response to an unfolding crisis, it appears to fly in the face of strict criteria the state’s public health officials — whom the governor oversees — have placed on what cases qualify for testing.

Officials at the OHA have said repeatedly in recent weeks that the public health lab’s capacity for processing tests is severely limited, and needs to be reserved for the most serious cases — not people believed to be suffering from a cold, as Brown is.

"The Oregon State Public Health Laboratory is committed to prioritizing those tests for those who are most seriously ill," state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger told reporters on March 12. Those patients, he said, included people hospitalized with viral pneumonia, cases that have a high risk of exposure, and rapid testing for facilities like nursing homes where the disease is detected.


Many of the criteria Sidelinger laid out are still included in a FAQ from the Oregon Health Authority, which lists as a high-priority patients hospitalized with viral pneumonia, symptomatic people in long-term care facilities or prisons, and symptomatic people who "who pose risk to vulnerable populations."

“For other individuals who have mild illness, we encourage them to stay home while they recover, as the vast majority of people will recover without needing any intervention,” Sidelinger said March 12. But if those people and their doctors did decide a test was needed, he added, “commercial laboratory testing is available and many of our local hospital systems are also stepping up their efforts to test.”

The state's approach to public health lab resources does seem to have changed somewhat in recent weeks — but in a more restrictive direction, not less.

The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last week that the state had declined to order widespread testing in a Washington County assisted living center where COVID-19 had turned up, while it had been quick to do such testing at a Linn County veterans facility where an outbreak occurred previously. Residents at both facilities are considered particularly vulnerable to the disease.

A spokesman for the state’s joint information center on COVID-19 response, Dylan Darling, confirmed Tuesday that strict criteria were still in place for the state lab.

“Commercial and private labs are providing expanded capacity for individuals whose providers want to test them, but who don’t meet those criteria,” Darling wrote.

That would appear to apply to Brown, who began feeling ill late last week, her office said Monday. Brown’s husband, Dan Little, had also come down with symptoms, and been tested for COVID-19. The test came back negative.

Given her husband’s test, Brown had no plans to be tested for the disease early Monday, her office said. That changed in the afternoon, when her physician arranged for a test, and sent it to the state lab.

Asked how Brown's test had qualified for the state lab, and whether she was prioritized because she is the state’s chief executive, Boyle offered a short response: “The Governor’s testing was managed by her personal physician,” he wrote.

Darling, with the state's coronavirus joint information center, referred questions about the governor's test back to Boyle.

Testing capacity shortages have been a key hurdle as Oregon and other states seek to respond quickly to the spread of COVID-19.

While tests in the public health lab have been constrained, state officials in recent days have heralded expanded testing capacity by commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp. Local hospital systems are also working to ramp up testing.

As of Monday morning, 12,883 people had been tested in the state, according to the OHA.