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Government officials and health care providers must enter a serious phase of testing and treatment if they hope to spare the state's residents from the worst of COVID-19's effects.

Oregon — like neighboring Washington — has moved past the point of complete containment for the novel coronavirus. That means government officials and health care providers must enter a new, more serious phase of testing and treatment if they hope to spare the state's residents from the worst of COVID-19's effects.

So far, Oregon has been slow to act. The state has been less than forthcoming with information the public needs, such as basic facts about the places where the 15 Oregonians (as of March 10) who are known to have the virus have visited.

We should pause long enough to say we certainly don't expect this new coronavirus to result in an apocalypse. Mortality rates for the general population aren't going to be nearly as high as current testing might indicate. As with most epidemics, testing has been focused up until now on people with the most severe symptoms. As testing expands, the morbidity rate will drop significantly.

However, for one vulnerable subset of our community — older and sicker people — this virus is a deadly threat. And Oregon's response to date hasn't engendered confidence. As of last week, testing rates were meager, which means officials were understating the number of people who've contracted the disease.

In Washington, where the worst effects of the virus have been on tragic display, the government and private sector have acted more aggressively.

A lab at the University of Washington, with money from Bill Gates and his family's foundation, is using an existing flu-testing program to ramp up examination of potential coronavirus samples. The lab can test 1,000 samples each day, which means Washington will have a fuller picture of how quickly the virus is spreading, how many people it kills, and who is at risk for the most severe complications. This effort will be greatly aided by Gates-funded home-collection kits, which will allow people to swab their noses and send the sample in for testing.

In contrast, Oregon is just getting started, with the ability last week to test just 40 samples per day. The state Emergency Board on March 9 allocated $5 million, to be used in unspecified ways. That amount is tiny in comparison to the resources available in Washington state, but it could have a meaningful impact on testing if deployed for that purpose.

Oregon's slow-moving reaction to the virus may be motivated by a desire not to panic people, which can lead to economic disruption. No one, of course, wants to see a slowdown in the local economy and health care providers don't want to be overwhelmed by worried people who would otherwise recover at home.

Yet, clarity from the governor and other public officials is of vital importance. How worried should Oregon's residents be? What precisely is being done to protect our seniors and vulnerable populations? That has not been made clear in Oregon, unlike Washington where strict new rules for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are being put into place.

The message from state and local officials here has been disjointed at times and comes off as muted and lackadaisical compared to our neighbors to the north. If there is a clear strategy, no one in state or local government is effectively communicating it to the public. That needs to change now.

The calming voices cannot ignore the real danger to the elderly and medically frail, including those living in care facilities. Their lives are just as valuable and their families will be just as devastated as any other family if this virus brings tragedy. A fast and focused effort to protect those lives ought to be the No. 1 priority.


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