State authorities expand restrictions in face of estimates that coronavirus could infect 75,000 Oregonians

Gov. Kate Brown details steps Oregon is taking to limit the spread of COVID-19 at a press conference in Portland on March 12, 2020. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

NOTE: Salem Reporter is providing free access to its content related to the coronavirus as a community service. Subscriptions help support this.

From playgrounds to prisons, Oregon is facing ever-expanding steps to get ahead of the novel coronavirus that state officials estimate could infect 75,000 people in a matter of weeks.

The biggest jolt to the state came Thursday night as Gov. Kate Brown ordered every public school in Oregon closed effective Monday, March 16, sending home 583,000 students and their teachers and other school employees. Students aren’t expected to return to classrooms until Wednesday, April 1, and even then they will are likely to face days without assemblies, field trips or concerts.

State officials were working up plans to sustain school-cooked meals for the thousands of children from low-income families who get breakfast and lunch at no or little cost from schools.

The decision to close schools came just five days after the state told schools to take steps to prevent the disease spread but otherwise maintain normal class operations.

“The guidance recommends against closing schools,” the Oregon Health Authority said in its Sunday statement.

Brown contradicted that guidance as one school district after another on Thursday moved to shut down their own schools, a growing awareness that COVID-19 is a public health threat that government officials say justifies extraordinary measures and help from every citizen in the state. Brown said it was proving “impossible” for schools to function normally.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said chidren are no more at risk than adults to get the disease and their symptoms are generally mild if they do.

The impacts of the increasing state restrictions were taking hold from one end of the state to the other as organizations complied with new state orders banning large gatherings of more than 250 people. That meant everything from concerts to weddings were to be scrubbed and churches were urged to find ways to replace traditional services.

In Vale, the annual crab feed scheduled for Saturday, March 21, to support local firefighters was converted from a sit-down dinner to a drive-by event, with diners grabbing orders to go. In Salem, the Oregon State Capitol ended tours and the Salem City Club, a local civic group, canceled its Friday gatherings, including one scheduled to update members on the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor has already commanded that visits be severely restricted to the 30,000 Oregonians living in nursing homes, assisted living and residential care facilities. In detailed guidance issued Thursday, the state is recommending that until at least early April those over 60 or with underlying medical conditions avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, a move that is likely to impact every senior citizen center in Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Corrections acknowledged the emerging health risks, taking the unprecedented step of stopping visiting to the state’s 14 prisons and their 14,435 inmates, now referred to as adults in custody.

“This decision was not made lightly and we understand the impact this necessary action will have on the people in our custody and their families,” said Colette Peters, Corrections Department director.

She said there were no known cases within the prisons and the results were negative for one inmate who was tested for the virus. The agency has identified 1,250 inmates at the highest risk for getting the novel coronavirus.

The Health Authority on Thursday reported that six more residents at a Lebanon nursing home for veterans tested positive for COVID-19, bringing to eight so far infected. State officials said they didn’t know the source of the disease at Edward Allworth Veterans’ Home.

Pat Allen, Health Authority director, described the home as “state-of-the-art” and that residents had individual rooms.

The additional cases pushed to 30 the number of Oregonians that testing shows were infected with COVID-19. The Health Authority listed confirmed cases in 11 counties.

About eight out of 10 of those who are infected will have mild symptoms. The best step for those individuals is to stay home, health authorities said.

“The vast majority will recover without needing intervention,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer.

State and federal health authorities say the elderly are most susceptible to the virus. There is no treatment and no vaccine.

In her guidance Thursday, Brown encouraged but didn’t mandate that employers take steps to protect workers, changing worksites so employees were three feet away from each other, staggering schedules and avoiding face-to-face meetings. She also said businesses should avoid all “non-essential work travel” and limit conferences and trade shows.

The Oregon Legislature readied to act as well, with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, establishing a new Special Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response, which will hold virtual meetings.

Kotek and Courtney said in a statement Thursday that the committee would “identify actions to support short-term economic relief to low-income workers and small businesses.” The committee also will make budget recommendations and suggest changes to Oregon law that might be needed “to assist with the public health emergency.”

The committee will be co-chaired by Sen. Arnie Roblin, D-Coos Bay, and Rep. Paul Holvey of Eugene. Others appointed include Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas; Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend; Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland; Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie. From the House, members include Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove; Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley; Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth; Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem; Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego; and Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass.

Contact Les Zaitz: [email protected]