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OHA to dramatically alter way coronavirus testing statistics are reported

Under growing scrutiny for its coronavirus testing efforts, the Oregon Health Authority on Friday announced wholesale changes to the way it will quantify tests, dramatically boosting the numbers by counting tests rather than people.

The changes means Oregon will now begin reporting much higher testing numbers while simultaneously cutting the state’s closely watched test positivity rate in half.

The shift in reporting methodology follows a front-page story by The Oregonian/OregonLive and a stinging letter from more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers calling on Gov. Kate Brown to immediately increase access to testing.

States across the country report testing numbers differently, and Oregon since the start of the pandemic has reported its testing numbers based on people tested, not tests conducted. Those statistics revealed the number of Oregonians tested per week had barely budged from highs in July, despite the state this month recording numerous records in coronavirus infections.

But that methodology excluded people who were repeatedly tested and who tested negative, counting only the first time an Oregonian tested negative or positive. That largely had not been a factor until the beginning of October, when the volume of tests completed rose much faster than the number of Oregonians tested.

Among other things, that corresponded with a requirement that workers in long-term care facilities must be tested at least once a month — although some workers will be tested “as often as once or twice a week,” according to the state.

About 29,000 Oregonians work in long-term care facilities, which are at high-risk for outbreaks and account for more than half of the state’s deaths linked to COVID-19.

The state’s decision to shift its reporting to tests completed, rather than people tested, means long-term care facility workers and frequently tested health-care workers will now make up an outsized share of the testing data.

As an example, Oregon has yet to report testing 50,000 people in a given week under the old methodology — and November’s numbers aren’t much higher than those from July. But the number of tests in recent weeks has exceeded 100,000, well above July’s numbers.

Asked for an estimate of how many Oregonians are being tested repeatedly, helping account for the sharp rise in testing volume but not a similar increase in people being tested, officials said they did not have an exact answer.

“I think the estimate is the gap of what you see between the two methods,” said Dr. Melissa Sutton, a senior health advisor with the state.

As a result, Oregon’s testing numbers will likely continue to rise even though that doesn’t necessarily mean more people in the community will be tested. The state still does not offer universal low-barrier testing to anyone who wants it, and, in fact, some Oregonians with symptoms say they are still waiting in line for hours to get tested at hospital drive-thru locations.

The shift in reporting methodology will also dramatically alter the state’s positivity rate — which has been tracked for months as a key benchmark for reopening schools.

Under the old reporting method, Oregon showed a positivity rate of more than 13%. Using the new method, the rate dips to under 7%.

Sutton cautioned that even the lower rate was still “alarmingly high.”

The change comes after The Oregonian/OregonLive reported that Oregon was nearly last in the nation in testing under some measurements, ranking 49th, while noting the difficulty of making comparisons because of differing methodologies.

Had the state been using the new method, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said that Oregon ranks 30th.

The state is continuing to work to expand its testing, Sutton said, with a series of “pop-up” events taking place across 12 Oregon counties in the coming weeks. The events are intended to be “low barrier,” Sutton said, with no requirements for symptoms, identification or doctor recommendation.

Lawmakers this week called on Brown to increase testing, noting that the state’s strategy is inadequate and citizens are vulnerable to greater spread from people who are sick or who are not showing symptoms.

“Oregon has reached a dangerous point in the pandemic with widespread community spread,” they wrote, “and we cannot control this virus if Oregonians cannot adequately access testing.”

— Kale Williams; [email protected]; 503-294-4048; @sfkale

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