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COVID-19 cases in decline, but not enough to reopen schools. For guidance, state looks to Denmark, Germany

PMG FILE PHOTO - Families enjoy one of the last few days of the season at the Lake Oswego Swim Park. State health officials urge residents not to attend large social gatherings over the Labor Day weekend, citing recent COVID-19 outbreaks tied to a beach outing and a 10-person family get together.Oregon's COVID-19 case rate seems to be in decline, but state health officials are nervous about a potential uptick in cases, following the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend.

Noting separate outbreaks tied to a 10-person family get-together earlier this summer, and a weekend at the beach where 20 people gathered, the state's top health officials cautioned that outbreaks happened when people were infectious, but asymptomatic.

"As we head into the upcoming Labor Day holiday, I want to caution people to strongly rethink your celebrations," Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said Thursday, Aug. 27. "Limit your social gatherings outside your household. The governor has made indoor social gatherings of more than 10 people off limits.

"Wear a face covering outside or indoors when you can't maintain 6 feet of physical distance. If you have a small gathering, consider hosting it outdoors, rather than indoors and, of course, wash your hands frequently."

Allen and Oregon Public Health Director Dr. Dean Sidelinger said last week was the third consecutive week the state saw a decline in cases, but Oregon isn't out of the woods yet.

Allen said Oregon's positive test rate fell from 5.4% to 5.1% last week.

"Hospitalizations offer further encouragement," Allen noted. "Since Aug. 14, we've seen a 41% decrease in currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients from 167 to 118." Allen cautioned that OHA still needs to confirm the trend with additional data.

"We're headed in the right direction, but we need to keep the pressure on to further slow the spread of the virus," he added.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist, at a press conference in March.The recent daily case counts don't meet the state's criteria for reopening schools to in-person learning. According to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners plan laid out by OHA, the Oregon Department of Education and Gov. Kate Brown's office in July, counties with 30,000 people or more must have 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks, and a test positivity rate of 5% or less during that same timeframe.

That same test positivity rate must be reflected statewide. The guidelines allow for some exceptions, in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities and students in third grade or younger, who rely more heavily on in-person learning.

State health officials previously said it's possible the state won't meet those guidelines until next spring, well into the 2020-21 school year.

The good news? Fifteen counties, most of them rural, have lowered their rates of infection, kept their positive percentage rate low, and prioritized a return to in-person learning for kindergarteners through third graders.

Sidelinger and Allen said right now, those who get infected in Oregon pass the virus along to one other person, on average. If everyone stays disciplined and follows the health guidelines for avoiding gatherings and wearing face coverings, that number could drop to 0.75, and Oregon could meet the metrics needed to bring kids back to school.

Oregon metrics for reopening schools

State officials look to Europe for guidance

OHA directors said state health experts are looking to European countries like Denmark, Sweden and Germany when formulating Oregon's health metrics, and for cues on how to effectively stop the spread of the virus and reopen schools.

"The specific nations that we looked at really did take actions to drive their case rates down before schools reopened," Sidelinger said. He pointed to the use of face coverings and widespread testing as examples of methods other countries relied on when reopening schools.

While some rural counties in Oregon have boasted low case counts over the past three weeks, the state's rules for in-person instruction rely on a combination of metrics, using both county and statewide health conditions.

By the numbers

The United States has 328.2 million people, much larger than the European countries used as models for how to stop the spread of infection in Oregon. To date, nearly 5.72 million COVID-19 cases and 177,332 deaths have been tracked in the U.S., which has an infection rate of 17,280 per 1 million people.

In Denmark, the Danish Health Authority reported 16,627 cases to date, 624 deaths and 90 active cases as of Thursday. By population, that's 2,855 cases per million, according to the World Health Organization.

Denmark's population is small compared to the U.S., with roughly 5.8 million people.

Comparatively, Sweden, which has a population of 10.23 million, has reported 87,072 cases to date, 5,817 deaths and 181 active cases. WHO reports the country's infection rate per million is 8,621.

In Germany, a country with 83 million people, 237,936 total cases have been logged. Germany's infection rate is listed at 2,839 per 1 million people.

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