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Jackson County Added To Oregon COVID-19 Watch List

Gov. Kate Brown at a press conference in Portland, OR on March 16, 2020.
Kaylee Domzalski/OPB
Gov. Kate Brown at a press conference in Portland, OR on March 16, 2020.

“Unfortunately, we’ve now added Jackson County to the county watch list because they have seen an increase in unexplained, community spread of the virus,” Gov. Kate Brown said during a press conference on Friday. “State officials will work with local public health leaders to help the community get this under control.”

Eight counties are currently listed as areas where rapid spread of the coronavirus makes it too difficult for health officials to trace and contain the source of infections. While the watch list is an early sign of a potential reversal in the state’s phased reopening process, Jackson County Medical Director Jim Shames says he doesn’t see the watch list as punitive.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get additional assistance,” Shames said. “It’s the governor saying ‘Whoa, it looks like things are not going in the right direction. How can we help?’”

The announcement comes after several weeks of high daily numbers of positive cases. There have been 636 cases of COVID-19 in Jackson County since the pandemic began and two deaths, according to Jackson County Public Health. The county currently has 214 cases that are considered active and infectious, though that number is almost certainly an underestimate.

A recent report from Oregon Health Authority epidemiologists that tracked previous COVID-19 infection through the presence of antibodies in people’s blood, found 1% of Oregonians have evidence of COVID-19 exposure. That’s ten times higher than levels indicated by state testing rates.

“We have a lot of cases that we cannot trace to a given source,” Shames said. “That’s an indication of widespread community spread and it makes it difficult for us to suppress the outbreak if we don’t know where the cases are coming from.”

Oregon Health Authority
Oregon county map with reopening phases

Counties remain on the state’s watch list for at least three weeks and until COVID-19 infections drop below the state’s threshold. The Governor’s office describes those thresholds here:

“Specific markers of this rapid community spread include when there is a sporadic case rate of 50 or more per 100,000 people in the last two weeks and the county has had more than five sporadic cases in the last two weeks (sporadic cases are those that cannot be traced to a source; they indicate community spread).”

Jackson had 53.3 sporadic cases per 100,000 people and 118 sporadic cases in the last two weeks, according to the county public health department.

Shames said there’s no specific source of COVID-19 infections in Jackson County. He said the spread of the virus appears to be happening in people’s homes through social gatherings.

Being on the watch list means Jackson County will get more public health assistance from the state in the form of epidemiological support, contact tracers and case investigation. Jackson County was running low on contact tracers in early August as the number of coronavirus cases increased.

Other counties on the state watch list are Baker, Hood River, Jefferson, Malheur, Morrow, Multnomah, and Umatilla.

Jackson County’s increase in untraceable COVID-19 cases comes during a broader decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide. On Friday, Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, noted this is the time to increase public health safety measures like social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing to further prevent the spread of the virus.

“Everyone needs to do what we’re doing – harder – and cause that decrease that’s occurring right now to steepen,” he said.

Oregon county map with reopening phases
Oregon Health Authority /
Oregon county map with reopening phases

Copyright 2020 Jefferson Public Radio

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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