Gov. Kate Brown Decides to Reopen Multnomah County Even Though It Does Not Meet a Key State Benchmark

And daily numbers of new COVID-19 cases are expected to rise as the county reopens.

Working along North Lombard Street. (Brian Burk)

Multnomah County will begin reopening tomorrow, June 19, despite failing to meet a key benchmark—a declining number of hospitalizations for COVID-19—that kept the county closed last week.

When Gov. Kate Brown made the decision to reopen the state's most populous county, she believed hospitalizations were declining, officials said, but the Oregon Health Authority had miscalculated the number.

A press conference to explain the governor's decision on reopening, as well as a new mask requirement, kicked off with a lengthy explanation from OHA director Pat Allen.

"We made an error," he said. "The data we pulled from our public health database were incomplete and therefore wrong. And I apologize for this inaccuracy….Our team has worked at breakneck pace for many months."

Multnomah County had 29 new hospitalizations in the past two weeks, an increase from the prior two weeks, though Allen did not say what the number for the prior two weeks had been.

In his apology, Allen did not explicitly admit the county had not met a state benchmark for reopening but said his agency continues to recommend reopening based on other data points.

"This error does not change our recommendation," he said.

The first phase of reopening means that Portland bars, restaurants and gyms will reopen, and gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed, all with restrictions around physical distancing.

He cited a several data points, including the relatively small number of hospitalizations. The percentage of visits to emergency rooms for COVID-like symptoms is 0.6%—a figure he said has "remained stubbornly low"—and the percentage of tests that come back positive is low, he said, relative to other counties and the nation. He also noted the county can now contact everyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 within the first 24 hours after a diagnosis.

He did not mention some alarming data published by OHA: Besides the increase in hospitalizations, Multnomah County has seen an 87% increase in new cases over the last seven days versus the previous week (a state benchmark says the increase shouldn't be above 5%). Forty-nine percent of cases in the county can't be traced to another case (the state benchmark is set at 30%). That number is also increasing. Those data points are considered requirements for a Phase 2 reopening.

The percentage of tests that come back positive continues to increase in the state and the county.

It's not the first time the state has bent the requirements for reopening, including allowing some counties to reopen without hiring the required number of health workers to trace cases.

The governor claimed that the week's pause was important.

"We now have a better sense of the sources of new infections," Brown said. "Case counts are rising largely because of workplace outbreaks, congregant care, social gatherings and some community spread"—that last category consists of the cases that can't be tracked to a previous case.

Data published by OHA contradicts the governor's statement that the state has more of a grasp on the sources of cases. A graph published yesterday by the state in a weekly update shows a growing percentage of cases can't be linked to a prior case, meaning the state has less of a sense this week than last where new cases are coming from.

Brown also said that the new policy requiring masks in all indoor public spaces will have exceptions for children under 12 and for people with medical conditions that would prevent them from wearing masks. People eating and drinking at bars and restaurants also won't have to wear them.

Brown said the mandate would not be enforced through arrests or tickets, though she offered no other details on how it would be enforced.

Yesterday, Dr. Jennifer Vines, the tri-county public health officer, cited the hospitalizations number as the reason Multnomah County could not reopen last week.

"The state indicated that it was our hospitalizations trend, even though the numbers were very low to call a trend, that was of concern last week," she said. "That number, as the state is interpreting it, has essentially remained flat. We do meet Phase 1 reopening criteria."

Vines also warned residents to expect worse news in coming weeks.

"We expect cases to go up," said Vines yesterday. "There is a trade-off here that we are making consciously in reopening restaurants, bars, personal services and gyms. And it's going to be on everyone to continue the physical distancing measures we've advised, now face coverings, as a way to prevent the spread of this disease and protecting each other."

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