By Owen Preece, OMN Photographer
Benton County has remained under the “extreme risk” category, leading residents to ask questions about why. County officials called a town meeting earlier this month to discuss the categorization, originally designed by Oregon Health Authorities.
In December 2020, the OHA set up a risk level framework to judge how well a county is handling the coronavirus and decide what restrictions the county must follow based on their risk level. Since it was started, Benton County has not moved out of the extreme risk category even as larger counties, such as Multnomah and Lane County, have moved down to high risk.
These matters were discussed at a town hall held Thursday, March 5 to answer some of the public’s questions about COVID-19 testing and vaccinations as well as why the county has stayed at extreme risk for over three months.
“My primary reason for wanting something like the webinar is that I could not resolve two things,” Biff Traber, mayor of Corvallis said via email. “One, Benton County seeming to follow good public health behavior with good results on hospitalizations, deaths and new infections until recently and two, being the lone county in this area that was still in the severe risk category.”
Being in extreme risk not only means that COVID-19 still poses a threat to Benton County residents, but it also impacts the small businesses of Corvallis. Under the restrictions of extreme risk, restaurants cannot be open for indoor dining and businesses must limit the amount of people allowed inside.
There’s more reason, though, that Benton County is still in extreme risk when so many other counties no longer are. Traber explained that Oregon State University, even while keeping a low infection rate per test, has increased its testing, which results in more positive tests.
“I could then see that we were in a conundrum with the OSU community doing a good public health action, substantially more testing which also led to a higher positive rate per 100,000 population with a lower infection rate per test,” Traber said. “At the same time, the Governor’s metrics only focused on new cases. This needed to be explained to the community.”
Due to the high rate of testing done through OSU, April Holland, the Benton County public health administrator and deputy director of Public Health said that Benton County is conducting a higher rate of tests than nearly every other county in Oregon.
“The total volume of tests per capita is among the highest of all counties in Oregon,” Holland said via email. “And the overall rate of testing per 1,000 people is 35% higher in Benton County than the state.”
However, a county’s rate of testing does not factor into determining the risk level. Instead, risk level is determined through only two different metrics. The first places a county in extreme risk if they have more than 200 cases per 100,000 people of the population. The second places the county in extreme risk if they’ve had a test positivity rate greater than 5% for 14 days.
“We have been below 5% test positivity for this entire period, but the case rate trumps test positivity as a criterion,” Xan Augerot, commissioner and chair of the Benton County Board of Commissioners said via email. “Without criteria about hospital capacity, it misses the fact that, though we may have a high case rate, we are not seeing acute illness or swamping [of] our medical system.”
Due to the lack of testing rates being taken into account when looking at risk levels, Augerot is trying to schedule a meeting to talk to Governor Kate Brown about adding the rate of testing to the framework that determines a county’s risk level. She would also like to suggest data to be collected on the number of Intensive Care Units beds filled per 1,000 population for every 14 day cycle.
“We would like to see a metric related to tests performed per 1,000 population, to capture the amount of disease surveillance testing we are doing relative to other counties,” Augerot said. “Testing is the gateway to contact tracing, investigation and control of spread, and between County Public Health and OSU we are doing a great job in that arena.”
Augerot also explained that, while Benton County does conduct more testing, the main reason that the county continues to sit at extreme risk is because of a high rate of cases, particularly amongst young people.
“Students living in dorms, communal apartments or Greek houses or any other group living situation are at higher risk of transmission, simply because of physical proximity and extended time of exposure—and the likelihood to not wear masks when ‘at home,’” Augerot said.
The good news is that, in the past two weeks, Benton County’s number of cases has dropped below 200 per 100,000 people, meaning the county moved into the high risk category on Friday, March 12.
“After a sizable increase in cases at the start of the year, cases have decreased in the past two weeks,” Holland said. “This is in conjunction with ongoing robust testing by OSU. That is, the reduction is not due to a reduction in high-volume asymptomatic testing, but appears to be truly due to a drop in the number of cases.”
Despite the dropping cases, Benton County officials emphasized during the meeting that this fight is far from over.
“We are at the 20-mile mark on this marathon, and we just need to keep it up,” Augerot said. “We all want to reopen our schools and businesses, in a way that prevents severe illness and death and protects our medical system. We owe it to one another to follow state guidance, wear our masks, and get vaccinated as soon as we can. And the last thing we want to do is to see anti-youth and anti-university sentiments grow.”