As confirmed cases of the coronavirus hit the U.S., Marion County says it’s ready

Gov. Kate Brown convened a Coronavirus Response Team Friday so Oregon can prepare in the event the virus makes it to the state.(Oregon Capital Bureau)

Oregon public health officials are monitoring dozens of people who have recently traveled to China for symptoms of coronavirus and say they’re prepared should a case emerge locally.

The coronavirus, also called covid-19, has killed thousands and sickened many more around the world. The virus, which has spread to 50 countries including the U.S., can cause pneumonia. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

To learn more about the virus visit the CDC website.

It was first detected in Wudan, China, where millions have been quarantined in their homes for weeks.

Patrick Allen, director of Oregon Health Authority, said Friday that his staff is talking daily with the federal and county health officials and local hospitals to monitor cases of the disease in the U.S. 

“People are right to be concerned. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this virus,” Allen said.

Two Oregonians with recent travel to China have developed flu-like symptoms and are being tested for the coronavirus. Results are expected Tuesday, Allen said. 

Two others with similar symptoms tested negative for the virus. The state agency is providing weekly updates about how many people are being monitored in Oregon. 

Allen said the state public health lab is developing the ability to test for coronavirus locally rather than sending samples to the CDC. 

Another 76 Oregonians who recently went to China are being monitored but don’t exhibit symptoms, he said. Those people have been instructed to stay home under quarantine for two weeks and check in daily with their local health departments to report any emerging symptoms.

Most cases of the disease are mild, said Dean Sidelinger, state health officer and epidemiologist. As cases have spread, the fatality rate for those with the coronavirus outside China has fallen below 1% – still concerning, he said, but lower than public health officials initially feared.

“What we really want to encourage people to do is use that concern to be prepared,” he said. Basic precautions to prevent illness, like regular hand washing, would stop the virus from spreading.

Anyone who suspects they are ill with the virus should call their health provider before coming into an office so a plan can be made to avoid exposing others, state officials said.

There are currently 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. among the 459 people who have been tested as of Friday, the CDC reported.

So far, everyone with possible exposure has agreed to a quarantine at home for two weeks. Allen said he recognizes not all workers have sick pay or can work remotely and urged people to talk to their families and employers now to plan for if they get sick.

The state has a stockpile of masks and other protective equipment and can deploy it to hospitals if needed, he said.

On Friday, Gov. Kate Brown convened a coronavirus response team to coordinate with state and local agencies and health authorities in preparation for a response to the virus.

“The purpose of the Coronavirus Response Team is to ensure we are taking every precaution necessary, in coordination with local health authorities, hospitals, community health partners, and school districts, to make sure that Oregon is fully prepared to respond to any outbreaks of the coronavirus and that Oregonians know how they can keep their families safe,” Brown said in a statement.

The team has representatives from the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon State Police, state Office of Emergency Management, Oregon Military Department, state departments of Education, Human Services, Corrections, Administrative Services and Transportation, the Oregon Youth Authority and offices of the secretary of state and state treasurer.


Katrina Rothenberger, Marion County public health division director, said the county is in a monitoring phase, developing communication plans with health care providers and talking with the Oregon Health Authority and CDC each week. 

Rothenberger said when a woman in California contracted the virus last week, the work changed.

“That was certainly a turning point and that’s when we heard the CDC change their tone, to realize that we could very well see community spread in the U.S.,” she said.

Rothenberger said the public health management team has been meeting weekly to prepare for the virus and stay abreast of trends.

“By using this as a framework, we can scale up if we need to. It’s a good structure for communication,” she said.

Most of the county’s messaging right now is focused on preventative measures, like washing hands and staying away from sick people. The virus is thought to spread from person-to-person contact.  

If someone were to contract the virus in Marion County, Rothenberger said the county would get a call to its all-hours public health emergency line.

Then, public health workers would then trace where the sick person had been and who they came in contact with.

Depending on how sick the person was, health officials would interview them and “figure out every single place that they have been” to determine other possible exposures.

If the illness became widespread in Marion County, the county government would activate its Continuity of Operations Plan, Rothenberger said. That plans looks at what services are the most critical to keep the county going, like payroll.

“We can’t just completely stop services, but we need to be able to prioritize the really important ones,” Rothenberger said.

In the county’s emergency operations plan, the health department has plans and protocols for pandemic flu.

The county updated its emergency plan this year and recently held an exercise with the county commissioners, Rothenberger said.

“We talked about the potential for coronavirus,” she said. “It was good timing to have that flu plan updated. That’s what we’re asking our partners too, to make sure their plans are updated.”

This article was updated to clarify that Dean Sidelinger’s statement about the virus’ case-fatality rate refers to cases outside of China.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250 or [email protected]. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.