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Oregon lawmakers push for more virus testing amid case spike

November 20, 2020 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon has reported a record number of coronavirus cases Friday, with hospitalizations at their highest since the pandemic began, officials said.

The state hit a daily record of 1,306 COVID-19 cases, the Oregon Health Authority reported. The number of people hospitalized with the virus in Oregon was 414 Thursday, the highest number since the pandemic began and a 142% increase since the beginning of November, according to state health data released Thursday.

Nearly three dozen current and incoming Oregon lawmakers have sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown demanding an immediate increase in COVID-19 testing statewide as case numbers spike, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported Friday.

The letter sent earlier this week by 32 Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the Willamette Valley emphasized that California and Washington surpass Oregon in the number of people tested but Oregon’s test positivity rate — the percentage of tests that are positive — is much higher than in those states.

Oregon’s positivity rate recently topped 12% while California’s is 5.6% and Washington’s is 4.8%.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive found that the number of people tested now barely exceeds the number tested in July. Oregon is now identifying an average of nearly 990 new cases a day, a record. Brown has not responded to the bipartisan letter.

Roughly 45,000 Oregonians were tested the first week of November — about 10% more than in July — even though Oregon’s case numbers have gone up 2½ times, according to preliminary state data cited by the newspaper.

Brown ordered a two-week “freeze” on social activities that began Wednesday, closed all restaurant dining except for takeout, shut down museums and other public gathering spaces and limited retail to 75% of capacity.

The state health agency Brown oversees should provide uniform statewide guidelines for who can be tested and should make it easy for Oregonians in all counties to find where they can get a test, the letter’s signatories wrote.

“We cannot afford to continue with the current testing systems in place today,” the lawmakers wrote to Brown, a Democrat. “Oregonians need certainty and they need access to testing.”

“Increased testing is a key factor in decreasing the spread of COVID-19 to limit the impact on our healthcare system and our economy,” the letter said. “We urge implementation of aggressive testing strategies in advance of the holiday season and utilization of all resources available to immediately expand rapid testing availability and contact tracing.”

Brown’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the newspaper.

Oregon’s testing woes have long been known. Large hospitals across the state expanded testing capacity at the beginning of the pandemic by building lab capacity from scratch. But the state has been slow to grow it further.

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State officials knew as early as August that they lacked sufficient testing, according to records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The state’s report estimated needing about 17,000 tests a day, some 10,000 more than was possible. The records show a “recommendation for discussion” to add 10,000 tests a day “as soon as possible.”

Oregon has since reached agreements with the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to provide more testing lab capacity in early 2021.

Last week, Oregon Health Authority officials told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the state’s bottlenecks are not primarily caused by a shortage of testing supplies by a shortage of medical workers to administer tests. The federal government is providing the state enough supplies to give more than 60,000 tests a week. But Oregon has not fully put them to use.

The state has had a surge in daily cases and hospitalizations since the start of November. This week Oregon surpassed 62,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and 800 deaths.

Health officials say that Oregonians are “dying at a faster rate” as cases surge. The death toll is 812.

“We are at a dire point at the pandemic in Oregon,” said Patrick Allen, the director of the state’s health authority. “COVID-19 is spreading dangerously and quickly.”