As Cases Rise in Multnomah County, Officials Offer an Explanation: Clusters in Families

Seeing family and friends may have caused the uptick in cases.

Social distancing in line as Portland shops reopen. (Brian Burk)

After the spike in COVID-19 cases reported in Multnomah County this weekend, public health officials today offered a few explanations of the rising numbers, including that the majority of cases in the past week were attributable to people being infected by family and social networks.

There are seven or eight clusters of cases in separate ethnic and immigrant communities that officials are focused on. County officials did not name which groups, but said they would release more details after talking to different communities, and cautioned that all ethnic groups are seeing new cases.

As the county headed toward reopening, more people appear to have socialized with larger circles of family and friends, officials said.

"We've seen that increase in the last few weeks," says Kim Toevs, Multnomah County's director of communicable diseases. "It's human nature to expect that the people who might be more risky to someone would be strangers, and the people that would be more safe are the people that they know, especially family and friends."

But Toevs said it's family and friends who are spreading the virus to each other.

"Those are the people who more likely to infect you," she said, "because they're going to be closer to you in your personal space and usually you're going to be interacting with them for a longer period of time."

Multnomah County health officials urged caution, even among familiars.

On June 21, the state's most populous county saw its largest single-day total of COVID cases: 84 people. On Monday, June 22, the numbers were much lower, at 17 new cases. (Statewide, Oregon saw its high case counts continue, with 190 cases.)

Worksites have also played a role in the spike, Toevs said, although there is no single, large workplace outbreak that accounts for a significant number of cases.

"We do have an increase in small numbers of connected cases in worksite settings," Toevs said. "Most of those cases have five or fewer cases that are linked."

For the week ending June 14, 49% of cases in the county could not be linked to another case. County officials did not have updated information for this past week, so it's not yet clear whether Multnomah County is doing a better job at tracing the virus in hopes of limiting its spread.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.