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Numerous local school, community events canceled after governor-mandated mass gathering ban; COVID-19 cases increase in Oregon and one case is confirmed in Deschutes County

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Numerous local school and community events are canceled after a governor-mandated mass gathering ban.Dramatic changes to a variety of events and organizations came Wednesday and Thursday in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus from the national to the regional level.

As of Thursday morning, more than 1,000 cases had been diagnosed nationwide and more than 20 in Oregon. One of the new cases is in Deschutes County while the other three are in Polk, Marion and Umatilla counties. There are no known cases in Crook County.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday night that gatherings of more than 250 people will be canceled for at least four weeks.

"A gathering is defined as any event in a space in which appropriate social distancing of a minimum of three feet cannot be maintained," a statement from the governor's office said.

On Sunday, March 8, the Oregon Health Authority said it was issuing guidance to schools, colleges and universities to avoid canceling classes over cases of COVID-19, the viral illness caused by the novel coronavirus, if possible.

Brown's orders, as outlined Wednesday night, don't roll back that guidance, but they do direct schools to cancel "non-essential school-associated gatherings and group activities," including competitions.

As of Thursday morning, several local gatherings and events had been canceled or postponed. Canceled events include Thursday's "What's Brewing?" community forum and the Paddy Pint Run, which was slated for Sunday afternoon. Events postponed included the Challenge of Champions Tour, a bull-riding event that was planned at the Crook County Fairgrounds, and a Parkinson's Disease presentation that was planned for next Friday. The status of other local events had not been determined by press deadline.

The Central Oregon Sportsmen's Show, held annually at the Deschutes County Expo Center, announced the cancellation of its four-day event Thursday morning as well.

A statement issued by event organizers said the "difficult decision to cancel the show (was) based on the mandate" issued by Brown.

"It's in the best interest of the community, our exhibitors and our staff," the statement reads. "This decision is particularly difficult given our 10 months of preparation, high hopes to deliver our best show ever and the effort of our hundreds of exhibitors and local businesses whose business will be impacted by this decision."   

This is the first time that event organizers have cancelled or closed the show in its 80 years of existence.

Crook County School District met Thursday morning and made several decisions. According to a school district news release, suspension of non-essential school-based activities began immediately and will remain in effect for 30 days, which is through the end of the day on April 8. All field trips are cancelled through April 15 with no exceptions. Sports practices and after-school clubs will still be scheduled as normal, although all non-essential meetings elementary morning assemblies are cancelled.

Since the governor has not recommended any public school closures, local schools will remain open. Custodial staff will continue to deep clean schools and disinfect regularly and buses are being disinfected twice per day.

After permitting spectators at Wednesday tournament games, the OSAA announced that it would ban fan attendance for the remainder of its state basketball tournaments. However, after the Crook County boys team played its second and final game of the tournament Thursday morning, OSAA canceled the remainder of the tournament.

At the national level, the NCAA announced Tuesday that it would ban fans from attending all its upcoming men's and women's tournament games. This came on the heels of other conference tournaments prohibiting fan attendance. The PAC-12 men's and women's basketball tournaments announced Wednesday that no fans would be allowed to attend any of its games going forward. Then, on Thursday morning, the PAC-12 tournaments were canceled. Later that day, the entire NCAA tournament was canceled.

The professional basketball level perhaps saw the most dramatic change, with the NBA announcing the indefinite postponement of the remainder of its season due to a player testing positive for the virus. Other professional sports leagues, including Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League were also considering some form of postponement Thursday.

The Deschutes County patient is an adult, and the case may or may not be due to travel or exposure of a known case. That means they don't know if the case is "community-spread" or not, but the case is being investigated, said George Conway, health services director for Deschutes County Health Services, at a news conference Wednesday, March 11. He said they will not have more news conferences if other cases emerge. He would not give the patient's age or community of residence.

Conway said investigators are asking the patient about any contact with people who are ill. They will be asked to quarantine themselves, and the department will make sure they have food and other needs taken care of. Anyone else who becomes ill will be asked to do the same, and public health nurses will generally check in with them daily.

"There's still concern by health care providers ... that their staff is adequately protected while they're seeing patients," Conway said.

Testing had been limited to 40 per day statewide, but commercial labs are now able to process tests, so he thinks there will be adequate access to testing in the next few days.

Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System, said the patient is in one of the health system's facilities, and staff are caring for the patient in an isolation room.

Conway said the number of people being monitored is dynamic.

He told state Rep. Cheri Helt that is a shortage of masks regionally.

"We are prepared for this," Absalon said. "As we speak, our caregivers are taking care of this patient."

He said St. Charles is focusing on protecting its work force and preparing for the spread of the virus.

With the World Health Organization's declaration of a pandemic, that will create more resources, he said.

"This is what we do," he added. "We take care of patients every day who have infectious illnesses."

Vicky Ryan, who is the Crook County Health Department's emergency preparedness coordinator, is helping lead prevention efforts throughout Central Oregon.

She said when a case is presumed positive in Crook County, health officials will immediately hold a press conference.

People in Central Oregon are being tested for the virus, but so far, the case in Deschutes County is the only one that has come back positive. The test now has to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control to be confirmed.

Oregon now has three commercial labs doing testing, along with the state lab, Ryan said.

She said she and other public health officials are working hard to normalize the virus.

She's been working with employers, explaining that workers can't be required to have a COVID-19 test before returning to work if they have a cough.

People who have a cough and fever should call their doctor, however, rather than going into the office. The doctor's office will ask a series of questions to determine if the person is at risk.

Then they'll be given a flu test. If that is negative, they may be tested for COVID-19.

Ryan said prevention is no different than for the common cold or flu.

She said public health officials always recommend that people with fever and a cough stay home from work.

Washing hands with soap and warm water is one of the best prevention methods, as well.

No one should visit a hospital or long-term care facility if they have a fever or cough.

People should cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze.

And they should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

And if people can't wash their hands, they should use hand sanitizer. If it's unavailable -- many stores have run out -- don't try to make your own, Ryan said. The percentage of alcohol you would need isn't available from rubbing alcohol.

Ryan said people don't need to be afraid just because someone has traveled recently.

She said at this point, there are no suggestions to cancel school or avoid crowds.

People who are at the greatest risk include adults 60 and older, as well as anyone with a serious health condition, including lung or heart problems, kidney disease, diabetes or a suppressed immune system, according to the news release. They should take extra care, and everyone should take steps to help protect them, the health authority said.

Ryan said the same precautions that were taken for the H1-N1 virus in 2009 are being taken now.

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