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Meanwhile, Clean Water Services is conducting a research project to trace new cases in wastewater.

COURTESY WASHINGTON COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH DIVISION - This chart shows the increased number of COVID-19 cases reported over time with an uptrend starting after the Phase 1 reopening in Washington County While there was a glimmer of hope, with a decrease in the number of new cases of COVID-19 in the county dropping from July 5 through July 11, "we're still in disaster levels," according to Kim Repp, Washington County chief epidemiologist.

"We have this nice little drop that's the 11% drop they're showing," said Repp. "Woohoo. We're still at an astronomical number of cases and I can tell you, we have, this week alone, we've already jumped above the highest (number of cases so far). It's going to be back up next time."

Repp said she doesn't believe the downtrend in cases will continue, predicting cases will increase next week in Washington County.

She said what makes her nervous is the number of sporadic cases, cases where officials can't find the source of their exposure.

"It's gone up every single week since we've went into Phase 1 and that indicates more community-wide spread," Repp said. "It should be, worst case scenario, it should be 30%."

Since Feb. 28, Washington County has 2,238 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 70 presumptive cases, 199 hospitalizations and 22 deaths, said Repp. (The latest Washington County death occurred Tuesday morning.)

Honestly, it doesn't look good and I am relieved our commissioners (are saying) 'We're failing Phase 1, we shouldn't be talking about Phase 2.'"

Meanwhile, Marni Kuyl, Washington County's health and human services director, spoke to the July 16 meeting of the Westside Economic Alliance about how the county is doing during COVID-19 and the most recent directive from Gov. Kate Brown requiring face coverings not only in all indoor facilities but also in outdoor settings if people are unable to maintain an adequate physical distance. That, she said, has led to the question of what constitutes a public space.COURTESY WASHINGTON COUNTY HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES - Marni Kuyl

"What I can tell you as a public health professional and from a public health perspective, my answer is, 'If it's not your home, it's in the public,' and so from a public health perspective, we're really trying to encourage people to wear face coverings anytime they're outside of their home, (or) if they're outside of their home and they can't maintain physical distancing, to wear a mask as well," she said.

At the same time, the health department is aiding the Washington County business community, informing more than 100 businesses every other week about COVID-19 updates via phone.

In addition, she said the health officials are trying to educate those businesses that aren't following guidelines, such as not requiring customers to wear masks or other violations, saying the focus is on support rather than enforcement.

"We have been receiving, on average, about 62 complaints per week, and we work through that and also work with OSHA and other state organizations," she said. "So what we do when a violation is reported to us is we contact the business by phone, we have a conversation (and) 99.5% of the time we just talk through what the violation or complaint was. We provide education."

That has meant issuing some letters but no fines to date.COURTESY OF CLEAN WATER SERVICES - Sewer surveillance is a concept of tracing where wastewater comes from in the sewers, something that has been used in the past to detect polio outbreaks.

At the same time, she said the county has used teams who go out to work with homeless populations and migrant camps to ensure testing, provide personal protection equipment and work on finding individuals increased housing as well.

Also at Thursday's meeting was Ken Williamson, Clean Water Services' research and innovation director, who said his agency has undertaken a major research project to track the coronavirus in wastewater, a process known as "sewershed surveillance."COURTESY CLEAN WATER SERVICES - Ken Williamson

"Sewershed surveillance has been around for a long time," Williamson explained. "People have used it for other diseases. It had its primary initiation in following polio viruses in wastewater."

The detection system is coming back into vogue, he explained, saying it's possible to track positive cases of the virus by detecting a specific molecule in concentrated wastewater.

"That's physically possible because as your body reacts to the virus infection by actually killing the cells that are infected by the virus, your lymphatic system … expels those cells from your body, and many of those cells are expelled in your feces," said Williamson. "And so if we look for the RNA signal of the virus in your feces, you actually find it."

From there, it's possible to isolate the general location where the wastewater is coming from although it's not possible to tell if a person is infectious or not, he said. Ultimately, it allows health officials to estimate how many new cases might be coming its way.

The cost to Clean Water Services to detect COVID-19 in a treatment plant from a specific city runs around $100 per day, Williamson said, compared to the cost of swabbing a person to check for the disease, which also costs about $100.


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