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COVID-19 in Oregon: Beyond the case numbers

Oregon doctors watching COVID-19 developments weigh in on the big picture ahead.

PORTLAND, Ore. — While COVID-19 case numbers are trending up in the Pacific Northwest, experts say it's tough to know what they mean for the big picture.

Dr. Ken Stedman at Portland State University is a virologist. He checks Oregon's case numbers daily.

"With everything that's going on with COVID-19, I think we need to be extremely careful about what data are data, and what are extrapolations," he said.

As Oregon cases surge, Dr. Stedman said context is key. Oregon Health Authority data shows a spike in early June, around the time when more than a hundred Pacific Seafood employees tested positive in Lincoln County.

Credit: Oregon Health Authority

"There's that huge spike, and that makes a big difference in terms of the average," Dr. Stedman explained. "Besides that spike, everything is relatively level, so I don't think we're seeing a really large increase right now."

In general, experts said concentrated workplace outbreaks are easier to trace. That means the groups impacted can help prevent disease from spreading.

"Advising them to isolate at home, following up on their contacts, [and] advising them to quarantine for 14 days," Oregon Health Authority's Dr. Paul Cieslak said of the Pacific Seafood outbreak.

Other outbreak clusters at long-term care facilities are also traceable and add to the spikes.

"What we have seen in recent weeks is a big uptick in our testing capabilities...as well as contact tracing," Dr. Claire Wheeler with OHSU and PSU said. "[That] leads to more targeting, focused and appropriate testing so that we have a much higher likelihood of finding the cases that are out there."

While some worry about large protests and demonstrations across Oregon, several experts said it's too early to know the long-term impact.

"They've been outside, most of them have been wearing masks," Dr. Stedman said. "It's a waiting game."

Multnomah County said so far about five demonstrators have been confirmed positive with COVID-19.

The county meanwhile is working to increase its contact tracing ability. Dr. Dean Sidelinger with Oregon Health Authority said last week, 40% of recent cases in Multnomah County had an unknown source.

"We estimate for every person with COVID, they cause at least one more person to be sick," Dr. Sidelinger said.

That issue contributed in part to Gov. Kate Brown delaying reopening efforts statewide.

"The governor has done a great thing," Dr. Stedman said. "Let's see if it's just a blip and an outlier or if this really is an indication of a big trend.This is a long game, it's not over, it's not going to be over for a while."

RELATED: What will the COVID-19 pandemic look like in Oregon over the next month? Modeling shows 3 scenarios

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