Lane County has been added to Oregon’s COVID-19 watchlist following a major surge in cases since colleges reopened in September. With a population of over 380,000, it’s the largest county added since the pandemic hit Oregon.
The addition comes as Oregon experiences a new surge in coronavirus spread, setting new daily and weekly records for newly diagnosed cases. It is the fourth county to be added to Oregon’s COVID-19 watchlist this month.
“There’s no question that the spread in Lane County is connected -- to an extent -- to student social activities,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a press release Thursday. “Social gatherings, like off-campus parties, are incredibly dangerous and spread the disease.”
During a press conference Friday, state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said that, while the return of University of Oregon students has certainly contributed to the outbreaks in Lane County, when it comes to placing blame, there’s plenty to go around. There are still outbreaks and workplaces and in long-term care facilities, too.
“The community as a whole is seeing increased transmission,” Sidelinger said.
Lane County public information officer Jason Davis agreed. In a media briefing Thursday, Davis said that most of the new cases in Lane County were associated with 59 active outbreaks, which cumulatively were responsible for 420 COVID-19 diagnoses.
“The average age is going down in our outbreaks,” Davis said. “That gives you an idea of where growth is.”
Over several weeks, Davis said, the average age of people infected in COVID-19 outbreaks in Lane County has dropped from 35 to just 30.5. That means that there’s more transmission happening among people under 30, but it also means that other people are getting sick, too.
The decision to reopen colleges and universities for some in-person learning has been controversial. Residents of college towns across the country asked universities to stay closed, anticipating that the influx of students could start a new wave. Universities opened anyway, and in state after state, a coronavirus surge has followed.
The University of Oregon is in Lane County, and is the third-largest university in the state. The largest is Oregon State University, which is located in Benton County. Benton County was mostly unaffected by earlier outbreaks in the state and over the summer, but was added to the watch list on October 3rd, not long after the university reopened for classes.
For a county to be added to the COVID-19 watchlist, a certain number of the infections need to be “sporadic,” or not linked to a previous case or outbreak. Sporadic transmission is up across the state, and in Lane County, it crossed the threshold to be added to the watchlist on Wednesday.
There are still major barriers to contact-tracing across Oregon. Davis said that 18% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lane County either could not be reached by contact tracers, or once reached, refused to comply with contact tracing or quarantine procedures.
Davis said the county has also seen case numbers increase in school-aged children. In Lane County, Davis said, many of those cases were found in students who are learning remotely and not in-person.
“So that means transmission is happening in para-educational activities, like sports, get togethers, etc. We want to try to mitigate that as much as possible,” Davis said Thursday.
He said that youth sports and recreation leagues appear to be driving some of that spread, and he asked parents to stop bringing guests to matches and competitions, and to make sure to comply with mask-wearing guidance.
An observational survey conducted in conjunction with the University of Oregon found that about 33% of Lane County residents observed were not wearing masks, and 1% to 2% of those who were wearing them did so improperly.
As temperatures drop and people start spending more time indoors, scientists expect to see transmission rise across the country. The lower the number of cases Oregon has heading into a predicted fall-season wave, the less severe that wave will be.
Oregon recorded over 2,000 new cases between Monday Oct. 5 and Sunday Oct. 11. That number is large, but it’s not the whole picture. During a media availability Friday, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said that Oregon has experienced a big increase in deaths: 2,002 more people died in 2020, compared to the previous five-year average. Only 584 of those deaths were classified as “COVID-19 related.”
“This tells us that more people have died this year from COVID-19 or other causes than would be expected," Allen said. “We know there are undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths, and some deaths that wouldn’t have occurred throughout the pandemic.”
A model produced by the University of Washington-affiliated Institute for Disease Modeling, in conjunction with the Oregon Health Authority, estimates that for every new case that gets diagnosed, roughly three or so other cases are missed.
The model also expects Oregon to keep breaking new daily totals. If transmission rates don’t go up or down, it’s possible Oregon could see 2,200 new COVID-19 cases each day by Nov. 5. But given the rate of undiagnosed cases in Oregon so far, only about 570 of those cases would make it onto the state’s COVID-19 count.