COVID-19 in Benton County
Benton County, Oregon State University and city of Corvallis will host a webinar at 6 p.m. Thursday to provide updates on community health, ongoing testing by OSU, vaccination programs and discussions with state officials about the inclusion of testing data within Oregon’s risk metrics. (Getty Images)

Benton County, Oregon State University and city of Corvallis officials say they are very concerned about the county’s continued status in the state of Oregon’s highest risk category for COVID-19 and will host a webinar to provide updates on community health, ongoing testing by OSU, vaccination programs and discussions with state officials about the inclusion of testing data within Oregon’s risk metrics.

The webinar will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday. Community members are invited to join the Zoom discussion at this link. A question-and-answer session will follow the updates. The town hall will be moderated by Dr. Robert Turngren, Samaritan Health Services chief medical officer.

Benton County remains categorized as at extreme risk, and since late December, its COVID-19 positive case count has been highly concentrated in the 20 to 29 age group. Increased case counts have followed expanded testing by OSU beginning Feb. 1 among asymptomatic students living in residence halls and members of fraternities and sororities.

Testing of more than 2,400 students weekly was expanded when analysis showed increases in viral markers within wastewater collected from residence halls and in neighborhoods around Greek living units. A large increase in positive cases among symptomatic students also was reported in early February by OSU’s Corvallis campus Student Health Services.

“Testing is an important prevention technique as it identifies cases and provides an opportunity to prevent community-spread outbreaks,” Commissioner Xan Augerot, Benton County commission chair, said in a press release. “OSU’s robust testing helps keep the university and local community as safe and informed as possible.”

Each week, OSU is testing approximately 3.6% of Benton County’s overall population, said Steve Clark, the university’s vice president of university relations and marketing.

“This testing is discovering positive cases among asymptomatic people who live in our neighborhoods, but who otherwise would not receive testing because they were not displaying symptoms. Identifying these positive cases helps reduce the spread of the virus,” Clark said. 

The state of Oregon’s Risk and Protection Framework ranks counties by COVID-19 risk levels based upon criteria that include the rate of cases per 100,000 population; the number of positive cases recorded in the past 14 days; and the county’s virus positivity rate. The state ranks counties every two weeks as low, moderate, high or extreme risks. 

When counties are in extreme risk, many local business activities are limited, including limiting retail stores and shopping centers to 50% capacity, and restricting indoor dining at eating and drinking establishments.

In partnership with OSU, Benton County intends to initiate conversations with the Oregon Health Authority and the governor’s office about considering changes to Oregon’s Risk and Protection Framework. Benton County intends to propose inclusion of three metrics in any future adjustments to the Risk and Protection Framework — testing volume, number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, and number of ICU beds in use.

“We understand the pressures being felt as Benton County remains in the extreme risk level,” Augerot said. “Our conversations with the state are about informing wellness more comprehensively while balancing health and safety with a viable economy. We are asking state leadership to give us the opportunity to provide testing data and epidemiological science to further inform their approach to evaluating risk metrics as we progress further into the pandemic.”  

Shelley Niemann, Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, wrote a Feb. 25 letter to Gov. Kate Brown to ask the state to consider the risk levels of rural areas such as Philomath and Monroe separate from Benton County at large.

“These small-town communities have worked diligently to follow the safety guidelines set forth by the state in an effort to slow the spread of the virus,” Niemann said. “These efforts have paid off as we believe the case counts in the rural local areas are low. Our small-town economies are reaching a critical point and we must act now to help save the small businesses that are the heart of these communities.”

Corvallis Mayor Biff Traber said Corvallis councilors are hearing from community residents and local business owners and managers who are concerned about Benton County remaining at an extreme risk level. He said he is aware of such concerns.

“In Corvallis, we’re hearing a clear message from our business community that state guidelines are creating immense challenges to their livelihoods and those of their employees,” Traber said. “On the other hand, our partners at OSU are doing an admirable job with a high rate of testing for the student body, which helps keep our community safer. We have made great strides as a community during this pandemic.”

Clark said OSU appreciates the challenges that being at extreme risks poses for community members and local businesses, but added it is a community benefit for the university to continue its expanded testing.

“Every positive case of COVID-19 is important. We know that appropriate public health measures involving each asymptomatic person diagnosed through testing averts a whole chain of transmission,” Clark said. 

“OSU believes that the university’s continued emphasis on expanded testing, isolation and quarantine practices, adherence to public health measures, and support of vaccinations is helping to keep the general Benton County community informed, contributing to the wellness of not only OSU students, faculty and staff, but also the greater Corvallis and Benton County community,” he added.

Clark said OSU continues to require its students to wear face coverings; engage in physical distancing; cooperate with contact tracing; and restrict social get-togethers to 6 people or fewer, indoors and outdoors, anywhere in Oregon.

In the letter to the governor, Niemann asked for a review for how risk is being measured.

“Although we appreciate the work that Oregon State University is doing to help contain the virus, we believe the outcome is unfairly penalizing rural communities and business owners,” Niemann wrote. “We ask that you please review the way in which the Oregon Health Authority is measuring risk in our county and, most importantly, consider separating the risk levels for the rural cities of Philomath and Monroe.”