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‘Flying blind’: Wildfires and hazardous air quality hinder COVID-19 testing

Multnomah County will wait two weeks to reassess Phase 2 and in-person learning metrics as wildfires shut down COVID-19 testing sites.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — Tuesday, Oregon reported 184 new cases and 8 more COVID-19 deaths. However, health officials tell KGW that getting an accurate read on where the state is at for case numbers isn’t so simple during historic wildfires.

Even our new normal just isn’t normal right now.

“We're kind of flying blind at the moment where COVID-19 is concerned,” Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said.

As wildfires ravage the region, the pandemic persists. In Multnomah County, COVID-19 case numbers were trending down and had flattened Monday, but Vines said they are stuck in limbo.

“I think whatever the numbers show from this time period, there's always going to be that asterisk; that things were quite different in terms of daily life in our area,” Vines said.

Testing is down locally because hazardous air quality forced some COVID-19 testing sites, labs and clinics to close. Protecting workers from poor air quality has taken precedence over running COVID-19 tests, which are otherwise available, according to Vines.

“So, we're in a little bit of … a dark zone right now,” she said. “It's hard to see what's happening.”

The fallout from the wildfires gives a murky view of case numbers. For families displaced by the fires, their priority is on immediate safety. Many evacuees are now in close quarters with people outside of their immediate families. Even those who’ve been able to stay in their homes are being affected by dangerous air quality.

“As far as making any decision based on COVID-19 metrics, at least the Multnomah County Chair wants to wait at least two weeks to see what happens with numbers,” Vines said. “We know that people have evacuated, they’ve gone to stay with friends and family. We’ve had people go inside and cut down on ventilation that we were otherwise encouraging as COVID-19 prevention.”

County health officials were already concerned about a spike in cases following Labor Day Weekend. Now they’re concerned evacuations and wildfire smoke could also play a role.

“Now with just the movement of people and having to stay inside during the wildfires and poor air quality – I think that's another concern that we may see COVID-19 numbers go up,” Vines said. “So, I fully agree with a wait and see approach.”

The wildfires also put extra pressure on a system that is already run ragged by the pandemic.

“As long as COVID-19 is with us, any additional stress on the system, whether it’s public health, emergency response, hospital capacity … There’s just not a lot of extra wiggle room,” Vines said. “I know a lot of people are hurting. I know people are feeling at their wits end, because for a lot of people, being able to go outside was a lifeline. So, my best hope is that our air quality clears and that we don’t have major impacts from COVID-19 from this otherwise terrible episode.”

Vines encourages everyone to stay vigilant about slowing the spread of COVID-19. That means good hygiene and wearing a mask, especially indoors.

RELATED: Oregon reports 8 more COVID-19 deaths, 184 new cases

RELATED: Live updates: 37 Oregon wildfires have burned about 1 million acres