Decreasing COVID-19 cases in Portland signal possible shift
At the time of this article’s writing, Multnomah county was still in the “Extreme Risk” category. At the time of publication, Multnomah county is being moved down from “Extreme Risk” to “High Risk.”
Oregon’s vaccination program has been marked by confusion and tense exchanges between Oregon lawmakers. According to an article from AP news, Kate Brown’s decision to prioritize K-12 educators over seniors sparked controversy. Other changes have occurred as well; during the week of January 25, three new counties were added to the extreme risk level for the virus’s spread: Baker, Clatsop, and Coos counties. These counties will face the same restrictions as Multnomah county did: bars, indoor dining, gyms, and theatres will be closed. Churches are advised to limit the number of people at religious gatherings, and general social gatherings will be limited to six people at most.
The Quest spoke with COVID-19 Response Coordinator Madison Riethman to discuss how Reed has adapted to the changing situation. We discussed surveillance testing, Reed’s vaccination plan, and what it means for Reed College to be in a county categorized as Extreme Risk. Riethman is the central point of contact for all things COVID-19 at Reed. She ensures Reed’s compliance with local, state, and national regulations for COVID-19. Her responsibilities also include contact tracing, case identification, and working with faculty and staff to respond to COVID-19 related situations.
According to Riethman, the Extreme Risk categorization for Multnomah County was in part a response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases last November and December. For the new semester at Reed, this meant closing the dining hall and Sports Center. Riethman noted that this is all subject to change, saying, “the governor’s office continues to look at the COVID picture and assess the data to assign risk categories, and the Oregon Higher Education Commission continues to work with the State of Oregon to make sure that requirements are outlined. … all that is to say, like everything in times of COVID, things change rapidly.”
Another challenge Riethman and her team face is preparing the school for vaccine distribution, despite a lack of a clear plan from the state. Riethman said “the short answer is we don’t really know when we’re going to have the vaccine here at Reed. … We have applied and received confirmation that at some point we are approved to be a vaccine provider… We have been working hard to make sure all of our equipment and our protocols are in place, so that if and when we get that vaccine, we can hit the ground running with it.” Riethman’s preparation for the vaccine’s arrival has led to interesting solutions. For example, the COVID response team partnered with the Biology department to acquire a freezer and other equipment needed to properly store and administer the vaccine.
Getting more students involved with surveillance testing is another issue. According to the January 29 Coronavirus Questions email, that week on campus students had a participation rate of 85% while off campus students who accessed campus regularly only had a participation rate of 49%. The coronavirus response team has already rolled out a new system to encourage off-campus students to participate in the new twice a week testing regime. According to an email from Riethman and the Interim Dean of Students Cindy Anderson, students who miss three consecutive weeks of testing may be prohibited from attending in person classes and will be ineligible for on-campus housing after April 11. Four consecutive missed weeks results in off-campus students losing card swipe access, housing probation for on-campus students, and faculty will be strongly encouraged to prohibit that student from attending in-person classes.
In light of these changes Riethman has also worked to make tests more accessible. Riethman said, “we heard from a lot of students that it was challenging to go in for testing when all of the hours were before noon. … But starting next week, we are planning to expand testing hours to go until 3pm.” Creating space for these new times was a logistical hurdle. In order for test results to be available the next day, samples are brought quickly to the PDX airport and shipped overnight.
As Riethman stressed, things are changing rapidly. After the interview, in a February 5 email the Coronavirus Questions team announced that the Sports Center will reopen on February 15. Students can register to access the Sports Center at their website. Furthermore, surveillance testing participation rates for off-campus students increased to 77% and on-campus students have reached 95%. While this is all good news, it is important to continue to wash your hands, social distance, get tested, and wear a mask.