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Answering your COVID-19 questions

A lot has changed since the pandemic started and so too have your questions about COVID-19. KGW took some of those questions to Multnomah County's Health Officer.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — Midway through October 2020 and the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere. Oregon COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise with three straight days of new cases above 400 last week.

Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines and her team are looking at the numbers. However, it is hard to say if that spike is the result of Labor Day get-togethers and wildfire impacts and numbers will level out, or if we will continue to see a steady climb as we head into the fall and winter months.

“The concern is that we’re going to end up on a steady rise with people heading indoors where we know the virus can transmit easily through indoor household contact,” Vines said.

Now, more than seven months into the pandemic, our knowledge of the virus has evolved. So too have questions around COVID-19.

“I understand the COVID fatigue, I understand we’ve already asked so much of people and we continue to ask so much of parents of school-aged children, business,” Vines said. “I think it’s a real tightrope we’re on to figure out what level of restriction is going to work to keep us from a health disaster and a hospital overload versus when are we asking too much.”

KGW took our viewers’ questions to Dr. Vines.

Question: Cassy Gemeli asked on Facebook: "With the new testing supplies provided by the federal government, will testing sites in or be able to handle the increased testing capacity? If not, is there a plan for more testing sites? With identifying potentially more cases are there enough contact tracers in place and are contact tracers having success/ cooperation?"

Answer: Not all tests are the same.

The new test coming from the federal government are rapid tests. Dr. Vines says the more common PCR tests, which you'll get at current testing sites, are very good at finding the virus. However, she says, when it comes to rapid tests, a negative reading can be questionable. Those are best used in people who have symptoms and are tested within a week of starting to feel those symptoms.

“So, given the slightly different flavors of tests we're trying to figure out the best way to use them and where to put them; where we think we're going to have the best chance of getting a reliable result that's going to help, not just the person who is getting the test result, but also help us in public health figure out what does the spread look like, how do we keep it from spreading,” Vines said.  

Multnomah County does have enough contact tracers to meet testing demand and the process is working well with those who are contacted, according to Vines.

Question: On Twitter Donna Benefiel asked, "How important is it to wear a mask over both nose and mouth in indoor settings? A lot of people refuse to cover their noses and retail workers are getting fatigued from the psychological stress of having to be the "bad person" who enforces correct mask-wearing."

Answer: A properly fitted mask that covers both your nose and face is essential in preventing transmission.

“So, it's very important for the mask to cover your nose and your mouth because that's where the virus lives,” Dr Vines said.

When we talk, sing, or shout we put droplets out into the air that can cause infection transmission, especially if you are close to someone, face-to-face, and indoors with poor ventilation.

“It’s really a win-win. So, the better your mask covers your nose and mouth, the better it fits to your face with fewer gaps, the more it’s going to protect you and other people,” Vines said.

Question: Sandi Alex asked on Facebook, “At the beginning of the pandemic we were advised to sanitize all our groceries, containers, etc. Then I heard that some of these recommendations had softened. What is the current recommendation?"

Answer: Proper hygiene is still key. The level a family chooses to sanitize the food and containers is based on an individual’s own choices.

The consensus from health officials, as we not it now, is that the virus doesn’t live beyond 24 hours at levels high enough to infect, on most surfaces past 24-hours, according to Vines.

“So, it's really up to individual households as far as; put your non-perishables aside for that length of time and depending on the risk level and your household and your personal willingness to accept risk,” Vines said. “You can sanitize or not. It's really up to the individual.”   

Question: Erin Skourtes asked on Facebook, "Are we waiting for a vaccine to open schools?"

Answer: Time will tell. Dr. Vines hopes we can get kids back into the classroom before a vaccine, but we are far from meeting metrics with the tools already at our disposal.

Unfortunately, Portland-metro counties are far from meeting the metrics required for schools to open. The metrics come from the state, with input from counties.

Governor Kate Brown did signal a willingness to readdress the metrics last week. However, Vines says she cannot predict whether we'll have to wait for a vaccine.

“My hope is that, no, that we’ll be able to figure this out by using the other tools that we have for COVID, but that depends on many, many people’s opinions about how much risk is okay to accept for our kids and their teachers and other adults in the school systems,” Vines said.