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Oregon's COVID-19 testing expands to 80,000 per week

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that the state's testing capacity is expanding to 80,000 tests per week.

Health officials said that with Oregon's jump in testing capacity, they recommend people who have symptoms of COVID-19 not only be tested but also people who have been in close contact with an infected person, regardless of whether they show symptoms.

“This is huge,” Brown said. “But, let me be very clear with all of you, it’s not going to solve all of our problems or answer all of the questions about the virus.”

The rapid antigen tests, which are being provided by the federal government each week through the end of 2020, can diagnose COVID-19 in 15 minutes.

Pat Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, said that testing will first be distributed to counties with long-term care facilities and areas affected by the recent wildfires.

“In addition, we’ll prioritize testing for the communities who’ve been hardest hit and most and disproportionately affected by COVID-19," Allen said. This includes communities with seasonal farm workers, communities of color, tribal communities and people living in congregate care settings.

“With this increased testing capacity we hope to be able to diagnose more people quickly so they can get the care they need,” Brown said. “We want to identify more cases of COVID so we can isolate and quarantine people and help contain the virus.”

Allen said, like other COVID-19 tests, false negative tests are not uncommon.

“A negative test result is not a free pass. It doesn’t mean you can go visit an elderly family member without risk. It doesn’t mean you can stop wearing your face mask," Allen said. "We do not want anyone to stop taking precautions against getting or spreading COVID-19.”

While testing will help in the fight against COVID-19, people must remain vigilant, officials said.

“Testing is an excellent tool to give us a more full picture of where the virus is hiding in our communities,” Brown said. “Unfortunately it is not a cure-all or solution to all our problems. We can not test our way out of this pandemic.”

Confirmed coronavirus cases in Oregon have been going up during the past few weeks. Tuesday, the total number of cases in Oregon since the pandemic began reached 35,340. The death toll is 581.

“We have reversed the progress we made in the late summer,” Allen said. “Our most recent modeling shows the virus is spreading more rapidly.”

Since the first week of September the average of new cases a day has increased from 220 to 285.

“This most recent surge in cases is an indication at how unrelenting this virus can be in spreading and how unyielding we need to be to stop it," Allen said.

The rise in cases follow Labor Day celebrations, wildfires that forced thousands of people from their homes and college students returning to campus.

The University of Oregon's website showed on Monday that 57 coronavirus cases had been confirmed in the previous four days alone.

All of those cases involve students, but only one of the students lives in on-campus housing. The rest live off campus.

As for K-12 schools, officials will be reevaluating school reopening metrics in the coming weeks, Brown said.

The state will deploy and facilitate testing to schools for students and staff, Allen said.

"I want to be clear, this additional testing, while critical to controlling COVID-19 does not replace our metrics for opening schools," Allen said. “In order to open schools safely and sustainably, we must reduce the amount of COVID in our communities.”