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Freshly removed from state watch list, county officials say they want kids back in school, urge Labor Day safety

PMG FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dr. Jennifer Vines, tri-county health officer, shown during a March 12 news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak. Now that state officials have taken Multnomah County off a "watch list" that could have led to further social distancing restrictions, local official say their next priority is bringing COVID-19 numbers down enough to reopen schools for classroom instruction.

To help achieve that, they are asking the public for help, saying the extent to which people change plans to stay safe and physically distant over Labor Day weekend will be key.

"That might be having a smaller group" to celebrate, said Multnomah Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. "It might be convening your group virtually, instead of in person. It definitely means having people outside, and everybody committing to face coverings even if you know each other wel l— and really maintaining that 6 feet of distance.

"We would urge you to avoid being inside together, but with anything inside you should have windows open, fans blowing with good ventilation, face coverings and chances for hand hygiene at every turn."

Vines and Communicable Disease Director Kim Toevs said the county saw major spikes in coronavirus spread after other holidays — including a more than tripling of the rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the two weeks after Memorial Day.

Toevs said the county's weekly rate of new cases — the crucial metric for reopening schools — has been improving, but can change quickly. To reopen grades kindergarten through third grade, the rate of new cases needs to be no greater than 30 cases per 100,000 people

"A few weeks ago, we had a case rate of about 70 per 100,000," she said. "Those rates have changed each week, we were down to 60 and then to 50, and now to 40. As much as we're getting close to 30, I do want to say we're concerned about what will change with the Labor Day weekend coming up."

To reopen classrooms for upper grades up to 12th, the metric is even lower: 10 cases per 100,000 population.

"I think it's going to be a big lift for a county the size of Multnomah given the level of community transmission that we're seeing — and even that we saw in some of the most cautious times, when many people were obeying the governor's stay-at-home order," Vines said.

She said the final decision on priorities is up to county Chair Deborah Kafoury, as well as the leaders of Clackamas and Washington counties, since the state considers the counties as a region in terms of reopening consideration.

But Kafoury said getting kids back to school is a bigger priority for county health officials than would be applying for Phase II of reopening, which would allow recreational sports, movie theaters, bowling alleys and pools to reopen, among other things.

While qualifying for such an application appears within reach, the officials said, they are concerned that doing so could increase transmission, meaning schools stay closed.

"We are not quite meeting all the Phase 2 metrics at this time," Toevs said. "But all of us, frankly, have significant concern about meeting the school metric as a real key area of focus for us — because we know that the long-term impacts for all sorts of kids of not being able to socialize and learn together in-person are really significant."

State officials took Multnomah off their watch list because the county's number of "sporadic" cases, meaning those of unknown origin, fell below 50 per 10,000 cases over a two-week period.

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