Oregon Looks Like the West Coast State Least Aggressively Grappling With COVID-19

In terms of both funding and testing, Oregon lags behind its neighbors.

A Costco worker disinfects a shopping cart in Northeast Portland. (Justin Katigbak)

Since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Washington state Jan. 20, the West Coast has effectively become the country's epicenter for COVID-19.

Oregon is geographically caught between two hotbeds of the virus: California and Washington, which rank first and second, respectively, for the most COVID-19 cases. But in terms of both funding and testing, Oregon lags behind its neighbors.

On the evening of Feb. 28, the same day the Oregon Health Authority announced the state's first case, health officials told WW the state would not consider declaring a state of emergency because it had sufficient resources. Sixteen days later, after 14 cases were confirmed statewide, Gov. Kate Brown made that declaration.

It shouldn't have surprised Brown that the numbers would rise. After all, the state's testing capacity lagged behind Washington's and California's, which suggested Oregon would see a delayed reflection of those states' outbreaks. Yet in a March 9 hearing to allocate emergency dollars, Senate President Peter Courtney recounted a telling conversation with Brown.

"I said, 'Can the Legislature do anything?' This was several weeks ago," Courtney recalled. "She says, 'No, I think we're all right.' And then, as we moved on, I kept saying, 'Do we need anything?' She says, 'I think we're all right.'"

Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie says he's satisfied with the state's testing capacity. "We do as much testing as we can for those who are most sick," he says. He added that the state will soon be implementing commercial lab tests, which will increase its testing capabilities.

Most people who contract COVID-19 won't get very sick, as health officials keep noting. But Oregon's limited response still matters—because the state needs to prevent an outbreak from spreading among the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

Intense demand could overwhelm the state's hospital system, whose resources also appear thin compared to neighboring states'.

"Hospital systems in Oregon are absolutely experiencing a strain," says Rachel Gumpert, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Nurses Association. "Three weeks ago, no hospital in Oregon was prepared for an epidemic."

We broke down how Oregon differs from neighboring states in its response and capacity (see chart below).

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