In Announcing New COVID-19 Precautions, Gov. Brown and OHA Provide Mixed Messages on Testing Capacity

Brown gave conflicting answers about her concerns over the state's testing capacity.

Following the announcement Wednesday night that the state is banning gatherings of 250 people or more, Governor Kate Brown held a press conference Thursday morning in which she and other officials explained new guidelines for combating coronavirus.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the Oregon Health Authority's chief epidemiologist, said there are likely 150 to 200 current coronavirus cases in the state. But based on the experience of other jurisdictions, Sidelinger said, there could be upwards of 75,000 cases statewide by May.

Despite these sobering numbers, Brown and OHA officials provided inconsistent messaging about the state's capacity for coronavirus testing.

To date, the state has tested 367 people. In contrast, the University of Washington is testing upwards of 1,000 people a day in its virology lab.

Asked by reporters during Thursday's press conference if she feels the state has adequate testing capacity, Brown initially said yes.

"Certainly I would appreciate the capacity to have more testing," Brown said, "but my understanding is that we have an adequate amount."

Ten minutes later, unprompted, Brown returned to the podium with a revised answer.

"I also wanted to add, we are concerned, frankly, about our testing capacity and we are working with our federal partners and [the Department of Health and Human Services]," Brown said. "However, the federal government is the only one who can expand our testing capacity, and we are calling on them to do that."

Brown did not provide specifics, and it is unclear how the federal government would be able to expand Oregon's testing capacity.

This is the second time Brown has given divergent messages about the state's need for testing.

Yesterday, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, Brown asked the federal government to provide additional testing kits—unlike her previous request to the vice president on March 3 in which she said the state had enough testing kits.

The state's lab, to date, has the capacity to test 80 specimens daily, which amounts to about 40 people. Last night, the governor announced that the state will be expanding its testing capacity by implementing commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.

But during Thursday's press conference, the OHA's Sidelinger was unable to pinpoint how many COVID-19 tests commercial labs will be able to conduct in the state. He instead referred reporters to the labs.

"I would suggest talking to LabCorp," Sidelinger told reporters. "If you want to know the exact numbers, you would need to talk to them."

In contrast, Washington state utilizes its public health lab and the University of Washington Virology Lab, which can test over 2,500 patient specimens a day. Meanwhile, in California, health officials are utilizing 18 public health labs to run coronavirus tests.

"There's other things the labs need to do those tests, many of which are in short supply," Sidelinger said Thursday. "All commercial labs are working to ensure that they have the supplies they need. I think they're working very hard to get those out."