Rates of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 have now surged past 7,000 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CD), with 75 cases and three deaths in Oregon as of Wednesday, March 18, according to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).
With the virus spreading, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health agencies, such as the OHA are urging people here and across the United States to take drastic measures to slow the spread of the disease, including minimizing their contact with other people through social distancing and not gathering in crowds of greater than 10 people.
Columbia County Public Health Administrator Michael Paul provided information to The Chronicle and during the March 18 Columbia County Board of Commissioners meeting regarding COVID-19, testing information and measures that Columbia County Public Health is taking to combat the potential spread of the virus.
Paul said measures released by the Oregon Health Authority, such as minimizing social contact, and mandates released by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, such as closing restaurants except for takeout and delivery are necessary, even if 80 percent of people who contract the illness will develop only mild symptoms.
Symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, cough and shortness of breath, which develop anywhere between two to 14 days after infection, according to the CDC.
While most people who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms, Paul said, about 20 percent of people who contract the disease will develop moderate to severe symptoms and may require hospitalization. Those 20 percent are people who have existing conditions like those who are already immunocompromised, or have a condition like asthma, according to Paul, who said people 65 years of age or older are also more at risk for developing severe symptoms.
“In some cases, they need a ventilator, or need to be admitted to an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) and our hospital systems only have so much capacity," Paul said. "If we allow COVID-19 to spread rapidly, then that system can get easily overwhelmed. That means that there would be more deaths than there would be if we took measures as a community to slow the rate of transmissions."
Columbia County Public Health action
The term “flatten the curve,” has been used by federal and state health authorities, which means to slow the number of people ill at any time to make sure the health system continues to function, according to Paul, who told the county commissioners cases would double every five to six days if no social distancing procedures are put into place.
As of Wednesday afternoon, March 18, there had been no reports of the COVID-19 in Columbia County.
“What we have to do right now is consider our community to be a lot bigger than it is,” Paul said, meaning that Columbia County residents are frequently coming into contact with people residing outside the county as they travel to other counties for work, recreation and the like.
The county must operate under the assumption that it is possible someone from Columbia County will have come into contact with someone carrying the virus, Paul told the commissioners.
“So we’re doing everything we can on a number of different fronts,” Paul said.
That includes communicating with Emergency Medical Services, long-term care facilities, Community Action Teams, all of the clinics in the area and other places that may come into contact with sick people to make sure they have the equipment they need, such as personal protective equipment if they need to treat someone infected with the virus, according to Paul.
“We’re working with other counties to make sure people in Columbia County have somewhere to go if they need hospital-level care if those other counties are overwhelmed,” Paul said.
This generally involves a lot of inter-county communication, Paul said.
Public health agencies, at both the local and state level, are past the point of containing the virus by tracking those who have been infected and with whom they have come in contact, according to Paul. While his agency will continue to track at the local level, Paul said the focus now is to implement social distancing, so the disease does not spread farther.
The lack of personal protective equipment for care workers, such as face masks, is a big concern and there are also a limited number of ventilators in hospitals, according to Paul, who added that Public Health office has heard many concerns from community members about others not following guidelines set forth by the OHA about proper social distancing.
Another concern is the spread of misinformation and panic.
Paul is urging the public to not post on social media about having been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
“We’re sidetracked when that happens,” Paul said, as doing so can induce panic. He said Columbia County Public Health will release information as soon as they are informed of a positive COVID-19 test result in the county.
Paul said any Columbia County resident interested in getting tested for COVID-19 need to know there are certain people who are prioritized for testing, including those who have traveled to an area where COVID-19 case have occurred, had had close contact with a known case, or had an unexplained viral pneumonia. Those people would go to the emergency room, with their tests sent to the state lab, Paul said. Currently, the state lab can run approximately 80 tests per day, according to Paul.
Others interested in getting a test would go through their regular care provider, according to Paul. At this time, with the capacity of the health care system to test people, not everyone can get a test, Paul said, and clinicians are prioritizing who gets tested.
“They’re using at-risk categories, people who are symptomatic, people who have had known exposure,” Paul said.
Oregon health officials are working to make testing more widely available in order to get a better picture of how many people in the state have the disease, Paul said. There are now three commercial labs, in addition to the state lab, that are providing testing services for COVID-19. How quickly a test returns results varies lab to lab, according to Paul.
The test involves collecting swabs from the nose and mouth, Paul said.
Paul said his agency will continue to monitor how social distancing practices are working.
Because the incubation period of the virus is two to 14 days, Columbia County Public Health will need a few cycles of the incubation period to evaluate the effectiveness of social distancing, Paul said. Every five to six days, public health will have a better picture of how social distancing strategies are working, according to Paul.
Paul encourages anyone who wants to help to check on their neighbors, especially the elderly. Another way is by spreading the word of the importance of social distancing.
“I just want people to know that their actions can make a difference and if we all take actions that may sound alarmist at this time, we can actually save people’s lives by slowing the spread of this disease,” Paul said.
Follow developments here online and in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.