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As state reports nine new COVID-19 deaths, Gov. Kate Brown says state to relax metrics to accelerate school reopening

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gov. Kate Brown says she intends to relax state requirements on reopening schools despite recent discouraging trends in disease spread.In the wake of new numbers showing statewide coronavirus transmission numbers are increasing, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday, Oct. 6, her administration intends to revisit and relax the state's metrics to accelerate school reopening — and that increased testing will help.

She cited a federal government announcement that it has begun dispersing a new kind of rapid coronavirus test to states. "We anticipate Oregon's share will be increased to roughly 80,000 rapid antigen tests per week," roughly doubling the state's capacity, Brown said in the press conference. She called the news "huge," but added that "we cannot test our way out of this pandemic."

She urged Oregonians to continue handwashing, physical distancing and wearing masks, saying those things would be crucial to more widely resuming classroom instruction.

"I wish I could tell you that with 80,000 new tests per week, that that would enable us to open all of our schools, but it won't on its own," she said. "Our Oregon health experts together with school administrators will be reevaluating our school metrics in the coming weeks, and we'll have an update for you on that very soon."

Asked if "reevaluating" meant lowering the benchmarks for schools to reopen, Brown indicated the answer is yes: "We're still exploring this issue, but I think it's fair to say that the statewide metric, frankly, is quite challenging for communities around the state. And my top priority is to make sure that we get our kids back into school safely."

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the statewide metric Brown was referring to is the one that requires the percent of positive tests to be below 5 percent for a three-week period. He suggested that the state was looking at dropping the statewide requirement to instead rely on local metrics only when considering whether a county's schools could reopen.

As Brown put it, "Portland looks very different than, frankly, Bend and that looks very different than Ontario. So we have a great variety of both geographic density and cultural differences across the state. We want to work to keep people safe, our students, our teachers and our professional staff, and get our kids back in the school as quickly as possible."

She said Oregon state officials are looking at how other states do it, as well as the latest science on school reopening: "We're going to look at best practices from states, frankly, in the region and around the entire country."

Oregon's weekly test positivity rate dropped to a low of 4.3 percent on Aug. 30, but has been growing steadily every since, to 6.3 percent in the week of Sept. 27, according to the state's numbers.

Whereas other states have blocked bars and restaurants from operating normally, citing data that such establishments increase the spread of the disease, Brown said the state has no plans to do that. When a reporter pointed out that Brown over the summer had vowed to reevaluate bar and restaurant closures if state numbers didn't improve — and they haven't improved — Brown replied that she believes the science shows that informal gatherings represent a larger threat.

"If we want to get our ... infection rates down, and we want to get our kids back in school, we all have to make sacrifices ... we have got to really focus on extremely limiting our social gatherings, particularly as the weather gets rainy and cold."

To watch Brown's conference, click here

Brown's announcement of a new push came days after a new Oregon modeling report showed that the state's progress in flattening the curve of coronavirus spread had completely reversed itself in recent weeks.

Allen, the state health authority director, said that "Over the past few weeks, we've seen a steady increase in daily cases, largely to social gatherings of various types.

"We have reversed the progress we made in the late summer, and our most recent modeling shows the virus is spreading more rapidly. Cases have increased by 25% since Aug. 31," he said. "The average number of daily cases has grown from 220 during the first week of September, to an average of 285 cases. This most recent surge in cases is an indication of how unrelenting this virus can be in spreading and how unyielding we need to be to stop it."

He said the increase in testing will help by allowing more vigorous efforts to track and limit the spread of the disease from known carriers.

After the governor's press conference health officials released data showing nine additional deaths of people with COVID-19 and 301 new confirmed or presumptive cases.

The counties with the largest numbers of additional cases were Lane with 52, Multnomah (51), Marion (34), Washington (30) and Clackamas (28).

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