Oregon bans mass gatherings, will close schools over virus

March 13, 2020
Oregon Public Schools, Kate Brown
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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon is closing its schools and should prepare for thousands of cases of coronavirus, Gov. Kate Brown said.

Brown on Thursday announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 250 people statewide for four weeks to try to stop the spread. She later said schools will close statewide from March 16 through March 31 due to staffing challenges and health concerns.

“Schools are experiencing critical shortages in staff, and superintendents are concerned for school personnel who are at elevated risk such as those over age 60 and those with underlying medical issues,” Brown said in a statement.

The Trump administration has informed Brown that it will be sending just a small fraction of the personal protective equipment she sought for front-line medical workers amid the coronavirus outbreak, her chief of staff, Nik Blosser, said. And much of that equipment is past its expiration date.

“It’s staggeringly inadequate,” Blosser said in a telephone interview.

Brown wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump’s point man on fighting the virus, on March 3, saying Oregon needs 400,000 N-95 respirator masks and the same number of gowns and gloves and disposable protective suits, plus up to 100 ventilators in case the coronavirus spreads more widely in the state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the governor’s office that Oregon will be receiving only 36,600 N-95 respirator masks, 87,000 surgical masks, 16,700 face shields, 13,700 surgical gowns and 48,500 gloves. No ventilators were listed.

“We are being told that while the equipment is capable of being used for COVID-19 response, what we would receive is well past expiration date and wouldn’t be suitable for surgical settings,” Charles Boyle, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email.

Boyle added: “Without additional PPE, our health care workers could be faced with difficult choices in the event of a significant outbreak, and social service workers could be left without enough equipment as well.”

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Appearing at a news conference, the governor said she and other state officials are also worried about testing capacity, which a health official put at around only 80 per day, and said “the federal government is the only one who can expand our testing capacity.”

The Oregon Health Authority later Thursday announced six more people, all at least over the age of 54, have tested positive for the virus, bringing the number of cases in the state to 30. They along with two others diagnosed Wednesday are residents of the Oregon Veterans’ Home in the small town of Lebanon, Oregon.

Staffers wearing gowns, masks and other protective equipment were caring for the two residents in their 80s. Officials said the six new positive tests were considered linked to the two cases, but the exact source of their exposure is unknown.

The facility in west-central Oregon has 151 residents and 225 workers. A strike team from the Oregon Health Authority arrived there Wednesday night and began collecting samples for COVID-19 testing beginning with “high-risk” individuals — those with any indication of respiratory illness, compromised immune systems or underlying conditions, the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs said Thursday.

There could be 150 to 250 cases that haven’t been diagnosed, and it could grow to over 75,000 cases by mid-May unless action is taken, state health officer and epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said.

And the Oregon Department of Corrections said it was not allowing inmates at its 14 prisons to have visitors due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The department said Thursday it so far has no known cases.

Lake Oswego School District said Thursday their schools will close because of the outbreak starting Monday and that the closure will extend through the following week’s scheduled spring break. The Tigard-Tualatin School District board of directors voted Thursday to close all schools in the district starting Friday and will reopen on March 31.

Clackamas County, near Portland, now has its first confirmed case, a man between 35 and 54 years old who was a close contact with a previous case. The other two new cases are both Washington County women older than 55 with no known close contacts with confirmed cases. They’re therefore considered community-spread cases.

“We find ourselves in an unprecedented public health crisis, a rapidly evolving global pandemic,” Brown said in Portland. “What is clear today is that we must take immediate action to stem the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in our communities.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover within a few weeks.

The governor said all non-essential school-associated gatherings and group activities should be canceled — such as group parent meetings, field trips, and competitions. She recommended businesses implement an increased physical space between employees, limit travel, and stagger work schedules where possible.

Mass gatherings are defined as any event in a space in which a minimum of three feet (one meter) space between attendees cannot be maintained. Brown said that includes even weddings. If one is planned for fewer than 250 attendees, the elderly and those with health conditions should not go, she said.

“Coronavirus is in our communities, we should be prepared for thousands of cases in Oregon,” Brown said.

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