Is Oregon Really Over the Hump? And Other Answers to Your Coronavirus Questions.

What do you want to know about Oregon’s coronavirus response and what comes next? Send us your questions, and we’ll update this post as we track down answers.

Oregon seems to have one of the lowest infection rates in the country, but is that just because we’re not testing enough people?  

It’s true that Oregon is lagging behind most other states on testing, and that means there have likely been thousands of undiagnosed cases since the outbreak began. 

But there’s strong evidence that Oregon really is ahead of the curve compared to other states:

  1. Our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. If Oregon were experiencing a New York-level outbreak, you’d see thousands of people flooding into the hospital system. But that hasn’t happened. The number of people being treated for Covid-19 at Oregon hospitals peaked at 129 on April 12, and it’s been going down ever since.
  2. Most test results are coming back negative. Nearly 55,000 people have been tested in Oregon, and only 5 percent of them have tested positive. Is it possible that flawed testing kits are skewing that number? Totally. But the fact that we’re not seeing positive test rates anywhere close to the ones in New York (36 percent) and New Jersey (49 percent) is a very good sign.

So yes, by some estimates, the actual number of cases in Oregon could be five times higher than what’s been confirmed by testing.

But even if you assume our case count is closer to 10,000 than 2,000, we’re still in relatively good shape.

What’s the deal with the COVID-19 vaccine? Is it really going to take 18+ months to create?

Health experts say that social distancing will have to continue in some form until the vast majority of Americans have been vaccinated. 

And getting to that point is really a three-step process:

  1. Scientists need to develop a vaccine for the virus that’s safe and effective and run it through enough clinical trials to know for sure that it’s safe and effective.
  2. Governments and companies need to manufacture enough doses of the vaccine so that everyone who needs one (probably about 300 million people in the U.S.) can get one.
  3. Pharmacies, healthcare providers, and local governments need to figure out how to administer those vaccines without creating RingSide Steakhouse kinda lines.

That’s a lot of steps, and it’ll only get harder if the coronavirus turns out to be a seasonal disease, like the flu, that requires a new vaccine every year.

So 18+ months? That seems pretty realistic even if there are some promising signs that Step 1 of that process might be ahead of schedule

The IHME model predicts that we’re over the hump of new cases. So why do your weekly updates still say there’s not enough hospital capacity? 

It’s true that the peak number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths happened weeks ago in Oregon, and the IHME model projects that those numbers will continue to fall throughout May.

But here’s the thing about that IHME model: While it does a decent job predicting the trajectory of the outbreak while people are staying home, it doesn’t tell us what could happen after the stay-at-home order ends and people begin to ease their social distancing. 

The best-case scenario is that Oregon is able to use a program of mass testing and contact tracing to identify and isolate anyone who gets infected going forward, preventing a second spike in new cases.

According to the state’s Office of Emergency Management, that’s what health officials are counting on:

OHA is ramping up our capacity to do sufficient testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine efforts so that we can keep cases in Oregon from spiking again,” We will track metrics like the percentage of patients seen in emergency departments that have COVID-like illness and the proportion of COVID-19 tests done that are positive as early warning signs of increasing transmission. We also monitor hospital capacity (such as the number of beds and ventilators that are available) very carefully on a daily basis.”

But it’s also possible even likely that cases will start rising again this summer or fall once restrictions are loosened, and we need to be prepared to manage that spike without shutting down the entire state. 

That’s why I keep nagging the Oregon Health Authority about their plan to scale up hospital capacity and add ventilators in a hurry, if necessary.

It’s not that we need that capacity now. It’s that we might need it in the future and unlike in March, there will be no excuse if we’re not prepared.