Oregon will receive up to 80,000 rapid COVID-19 tests per week from the federal government, doubling its testing abilities and allowing people who don't show any symptoms of the virus to be tested, Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday.
The first communities to receive these antigen tests, which will produce results in 15 minutes, will be those affected by wildfires, she said.
"I know it hasn't been easy. We've learned a new way of living that involves masks, physical distancing and the ever-popular Zoom rooms conferencing," Brown said in a press conference Tuesday. "We have certainly seen a rise in COVID cases recently. This was to be expected coming off of Labor Day weekend and the intense wildfires that forced so many Oregonians from their homes.
"But colder, rainy weather is coming and Oregonians will be spending more time indoors where COVID spreads more easily. If we're sick of COVID-19 now, it's only going to get harder."
Since Aug. 31, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen by 25%, caused largely by social gatherings, said Patrick Allen, Oregon Health Authority director. It marks the end of a five-week downward trend.
As of Tuesday, there were 35,340 confirmed and presumptive cases and 581 deaths, Allen said.
The rapid Abbott BinaxNOW antigen testing kits are being deployed nationwide. In Oregon, once the communities affected by wildfire get the test kits, it will then go to test migrant and agricultural workers, communities of color, tribal communities and senior citizens. Eventually, communities will have a supply to use in contact tracing efforts.
The goal with testing is the more tested, the more the spread can be contained, Brown said. The new supply of tests allows the state to revise its testing guidelines and now test even those who don't show any symptoms but have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, Safeway/Albertsons stores with pharmacies in Oregon and southern Washington now offer at-home COVID-19 test kits using saliva. The kits, which cost $139.99 each can be picked up at a store or delivered by mail. Results are available within 72 hours by email or text, said Stephen Certo, Safeway/Albertsons director of pharmacy operations.
At the moment these tests are not covered by insurance, Certo said. And there are no restrictions on the number of kits requested.
"We have plenty of supply," Certo said. "It's 98% accurate. If it is positive, then you have COVID, but if it's negative you don't have the results for the two viral targets it tests for."
By state law, labs are required to notify the state of any testing results and positive cases resulting from the saliva tests will be treated the same as other lab results, said Morgan Emerson, Deschutes County Health Services spokeswoman.
"By expanding our testing capacity, it will cast a wider net, identify more cases and cut off more paths the virus can use to spread especially in counties experiencing large outbreaks," Allen said. "These tests are fast. They are accurate positive results, but they have strengths and limitations. "
But they can result in false negatives even among those with symptoms, Allen said. A negative test is not a free pass and means that people can stop taking precautions, he said.
The state's additional testing capacity also means that the metrics to reopen schools can be re-evaluated, Brown said. That will occur over the next couple of weeks as health officials and school administrations talk to parents, teachers and staff.
Test kits will be sent to health centers to test students and staff who have symptoms or have contact with someone who has symptoms at kindergarten through grade 12 and at college campuses, Allen said.
"This additional testing, while critical for controlling COVID-19, does not replace our metrics for opening schools," Allen said. "In order to reopen schools safely and sustainably, we must reduce the amount of COVID in our communities."
The Oregon Health Authority will distribute these tests to local public health authorities who will then send them out to rural hospitals, rural health centers, and federally qualified health centers, Emerson said. In Deschutes County, those centers are Mosaic and La Pine Community Health Center, Emerson said. County health officials are working out a distribution framework that assures "equitable access to these tests."