A Rise in COVID-19 Cases in Deschutes County Tests Whether the State Will Close Bars, Restaurants Again. (So Far? No.)

The county that contains Bend is seeing an increase in cases going into the holiday weekend.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County has increased over the last seven days. On Wednesday, the county reported nine cases—more cases than it has on any other single day.

Those increases raise the question of whether the state will order the county to shut down the bars, restaurants and hair salons that reopened just six days ago.

One public health watchdog urges that decision. "The state should seriously consider removing the Phase 1 approval," says Numi Lee Griffith, a health researcher with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.

A 5 percent increase in COVID cases is the benchmark the state set for reviewing the status of a county and possibly shuttering it again. Griffith pointed to a 27 percent increase in cases in Deschutes County during the week ending May 20.

"If restrictions are temporarily reimposed and individuals take precautions, there's still a chance that the outbreak can be kept under control," Griffith wrote in a post for OSPIRG.

But so far the state isn't shutting down what it has reopened.

"If it becomes necessary, counties that have entered Phase 1 can be moved back to a baseline status," says Gov. Kate Brown's spokesman Charles Boyle. "However, [the Oregon Health Authority] will work with local public health authorities to recommend more targeted interventions before we take that step."

Deschutes County says that in the past week, three-quarters of 26 cases identified by the county were found through contact tracing.

The individuals had attended social gatherings involving multiple households, says county spokesman Morgan Emerson. (Before the last week, the majority of cases were unrelated to one another and not found with contact tracing; 70 of 117 were community spread.)

Emerson told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the cases represented a shift in the demographics of the disease. "Our largest age group is 20 to 29 years," Emerson told OPB, whereas previously the disease hit older people.

The fact the county identified and isolated the cause of the spread gives officials more confidence that any outbreak can be contained, but it highlights the risk posed by any Memorial Day weekend gatherings.

Emerson says the county is reminding people to be "safe over the weekend," but is not pushing to reinstitute social distancing.

Bend, the largest city in Deschutes County, is a tourist destination. Journalists in Bend reported increased crowds on the first weekend the city reopened. And today, the governor and the mayor of Bend pleaded with Portlanders not to visit over the holiday.

If Bend demonstrates the difficulty of reclosing a county once it's reopened, Brown is still pressing ahead with reopening more.

Marion County, which reopens tomorrow, has also seen an increase in the number of cases. Cases there have increased by 19 percent in the last week, according to state data. A decline in the number of cases was not a requirement for approving an application to reopen, though it is a benchmark for reexamining any opening.

State officials professed themselves satisfied with the progress the county is making.

"Marion County met all the prerequisites for reopening, showing marked improvement in the last week, with a declining number of COVID-19 hospitalizations," says Boyle.

"After their application was denied last week, the county revised their application, and presented detailed plans from their public health department, including how, as part of their contact tracing and testing efforts, they plan to focus on outreach to underserved communities that have been disproportionately hard hit by COVID-19."

Brown has repeatedly been flexible with counties over their plans to reopen, allowing Deschutes County, among others, not to meet the benchmarks she set for hiring contact tracers, the health workers who track the spread of the virus.

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