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Why Oregon Governor Has Put County Reopenings On Hold


Several weeks into reopening, more than 20 states are now seeing coronavirus numbers grow - Texas, Arizona, the Carolinas and more. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown says her state is pushing pause.


KATE BROWN: In order to slow the transmission of the virus, I am putting all pending county reopening applications on hold for seven days. This is essentially a statewide yellow light.

SHAPIRO: She first made the announcement last night, just hours before many businesses expected to be able to reopen. Patrick Allen is the director of the Oregon Health Authority.


PATRICK ALLEN: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: What was the tipping point for you? Did Oregon hit some kind of percentage increase that you and the governor felt warranted this move?

ALLEN: You know, it was a number of factors. We had our new cases increasing. Our testing had been increasing significantly, but also the positive rate of tests was increasing, which is a concern. Our hospitalizations have increased. You know, and we went into reopening actually having managed this fairly successfully. I think we had about the fifth lowest infection rate in the country and the fifth lowest fatality rate. But we really wanted to make sure that we didn't let this get away from us as those numbers began to increase three or four weeks out from Memorial Day and from the beginning of reopening some of the first counties.

SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about where these infections are happening? Like, where and how are people catching the virus?

ALLEN: Yeah, so that's kind of the interesting thing. If we could point to one event or one circumstance, it wouldn't be nearly so concerning. But we've had a number of large workplace outbreaks, including a seafood processing plant on the Oregon coast. And then there are cases from gatherings, and, you know, obviously, protests are kind of an obvious one. We don't actually have much data that shows that there are cases due to those protests. But what we do have, surprisingly enough, are things like family get-togethers, friends renting a vacation house, birthday parties, those kinds of things, those are actually really excellent ways to spread the disease. And, you know, one of the things I worry about is that people feel like moving into phase 1 or phase 2 is going back to normal as opposed to very gently beginning to get used to a new way of doing things. So all those things added up, I think, to contribute to these numbers.

SHAPIRO: Do you have enough contact tracers to follow up on these new positive cases?

ALLEN: Yeah. Across the state, we're at about 95% of all cases being traced within 24 hours. The large outbreak that we have at the seafood plant on the coast is very large for the size of that community and requires some language skills not only in Spanish, but in a native Guatemalan dialect. That case has been a little bit difficult to stay on top of. That county has made use of mutual aid from other counties and tribes as well as state resources. But beyond that, I think we're doing a pretty good job of doing the tracing we need to do.

SHAPIRO: Given that the number of cases we see is generally a reflection of where things were two weeks ago, because they take time for symptoms to show, are you afraid that the numbers could continue to grow for at least the next couple of weeks?

ALLEN: Yeah. And that was exactly what underlies the governor's pause, or yellow light, as she called it. Let's wait and see what these numbers continue to look like for another week. Her indication today was, at the end of that week, we'll see if we need to wait yet more time or if we'll know where we are at that point. The other thing that's worth pointing out is that we're also at the time of year when agricultural employment and food processing starts really picking up. And we've had businesses doing a lot of testing as their workforce arrives, and that's a good thing. And so part of what we need to be able to do is tease out how much of this increase is due to that sort of thing versus increases that are due to the actual reopening.

SHAPIRO: So what's your message to not just Oregonians but people all over the country who are hoping for some semblance of a normal summer?

ALLEN: I think the message is moving out of stay-home orders is not the same thing as moving back to where you were before. It means continuing to vigilantly do things like staying home when you're sick, covering your cough, washing your hands, wearing a mask. That all sounds, you know, kind of pedestrian, but in the absence of stay-home orders, those are the tools that we really need to be able to manage this. And then the last thing really is, if you get a call from a contact tracer, please take that call, and please answer the questions because that's really important for our ability to manage this.

SHAPIRO: Patrick Allen is director of the Oregon Health Authority.

Thanks for talking with us during this busy time.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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