The Oregon Health Authority is kicking off a statewide coronavirus study to track the virus' spread and identify areas where its transmission has gone undetected. The sweeping study will begin after some areas of Oregon start to reopen in the wake of COVID-19 closures.
"This program is a game-changer," Gov. Kate Brown said at a Friday morning press conference. "It will give us a more accurate understanding of the true rate of infection in Oregon."
The study—a partnership between Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA)—will monitor the daily health of 100,000 randomly selected Oregonians over the course of a year. Participation is voluntarily, and will require subjects to submit daily updates on their temperature and data points, tracked at home with digital technology.
Researchers will make sure communities of color, immigrants, rural residents, and other traditionally undercounted communities are fairly represented in the study. Recent OHA data shows that Oregonians of color, particularly members of the Latinx community, are disproportionally represented in the state's positive COVID-19 cases.
"This will allow us to better understand where the disease is located, how common it is, and how it might be transmitted around the state," said OHSU President Danny Jacobs at the press conference. "This is information that will be collected in real time, and provide useful information that will help get people back to school more safely and back to work faster."
There is a second piece to this study: Researchers will also ask 10,000 of the study's subjects to administer an at-home COVID-19 test, in hopes of identifying symptom-free cases of the virus.
The state has dedicated $6 million to the program. Researchers will beginning mailing letters requesting Oregonians' participation in the study on May 11.
Meanwhile, Brown noted, several rural Oregon communities that have seen a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases will begin reopening some businesses and public facilities as soon as May 15. Brown said that some Eastern Oregon counties have sent her office the necessary documents needed to grant her approval to lift several COVID-19 restrictions in that area. According to a draft document outlining the state's plan to reopen its economy (leaked by the Oregonian), those documents include sign offs from local public health officials and hospitals regarding declining COVID-19 cases and personal protection supplies. Brown would not say which specific counties sent these requests.
Brown said that the state's major hospitals will be now coordinating their COVID-19 response work to streamline testing as Oregon's access to COVID-19 tests slowly increases. The state will also hire 600 new state employees to contact Oregonians who've tested positive for the coronavirus, in hopes of identifying others who they may have transmitted the virus to—a process called "contact tracing."
Dean Sidelinger, OHA's lead epidemiologist, said that Oregon is currently seeing a 70 percent drop in COVID-19 transmissions. But that number may change once the state's plan to reopen communities is fully under way.
"I also want to underscore that this strategy is not without risk," said Sidelinger. "Projections show that the disease will increase in order as we open up, that more people will be hospitalized, and possibly even die."
Sidelinger said he's hopeful that Oregon won't see a massive uptick in COVID-19 cases following the state's gradual reopening of its economy, thereby forcing OHA to recommend reinstating strict social distancing guidelines.
"But," he said, "that's a conversation we're ready to have."