Benton County officials are continuing to push the state to change the way it calculates risk levels for COVID-19. Their latest comments came Thursday evening during an online town hall.
Benton is one of just five Oregon counties still considered to be “Extreme Risk.” The county’s test positivity rate is among the lowest in the state, but the overall number of positive tests has so far prevented it from seeing its restrictions eased.
County leaders say the high number of coronavirus tests done by Oregon State University contributes to their status, even though they’re careful to say they support the testing program run by OSU.
“We don’t want to be penalized here in Benton County for protecting our community through critical communicable disease tactics such as OSU’s high rate of testing," said Commissioner Xan Augerot. "We don't want to be penalized for effectively buffering the community from wide COVID spread."
Augerot said the county isn't pushing to be granted an exception. Rather, they want changes to be made that would affect all 36 Oregon counties. She said county leaders are hoping to meet with the governor’s office next week to push for possible changes to the way the risk levels are calculated.
“I believe that the current metrics are incomplete because they effectively disincentivize testing, and therefore do not accurately reflect risk," said April Holland, the communicable disease manager for the Benton County Health Department. "You can’t find what you aren’t looking for.”
Being in the "Extreme Risk" level means restaurants in Benton County still can’t offer indoor dining and other businesses there have strict capacity limits, even as restrictions in neighboring counties are being eased.
The "risk level" system was put in place by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority in early December as the state's newest strategy to re-open the economy while keeping safety measures in place in parts of the state still experiencing rapid coronavirus spread.
Benton County's quandry could be solved, at least in the near term, as soon as next week. Preliminary figures published by the Oregon Health Authority show that the county is on pace to be placed in the "High Risk" category as soon as March 12. However, that depends on test results from the county over the remainder of this week.