Oregon changes how it counts COVID-19 recoveries, prompting concerns about accuracy

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
July 16, 2020 3:39 p.m.

Last month, the Oregon Health Authority implemented a new guideline in which it would consider COVID-19 cases recovered after 60 days. Previously, public health officials would individually call patients to assess recovery.

Late last month, the Oregon Health Authority made a change to the way it assesses whether coronavirus patients in the state have recovered from their illness. Some say that change may be inflating the number of “active” coronavirus cases in Oregon.

OHA is now using a “60-day-rule” to assess the recovery of coronavirus cases. Previously, public health officials would call patients with COVID-19 to track when their symptoms disappear and to assess their recovery.

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Now, “any confirmed or presumptive case who is alive 60 days after the earliest of their onset of symptoms or collection of their first positive test will be considered recovered,” Jonathan Modie with OHA told OPB.

A sign alerts residents to a mobile COVID-19 testing site set up on in Chicago last month.

A sign alerts residents to a mobile COVID-19 testing site set up on in Chicago last month.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

The agency is using that new strategy to shift its resources, Modie said.

“Our epidemiologists are using the time that had been spent on assessing recovery to perform case investigations and contact tracing,” he said.

According to OHA’s most updated data from Tuesday, there are currently 3,129 COVID-19 cases in Oregon that are considered to be “recovered.” With the number of positive tests minus coronavirus-related deaths and those recovered cases, Oregon has more than 8,700 cases that are still considered “active.”

Officials with Klamath County Public Health said that number may be inaccurate due to OHA’s new 60-day process.

KCPH announced earlier this month that it would no longer publish active case and recovery numbers for its own county, due to the change.

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“It’s an unfortunate change,” KCPH Director Jennifer Little said in a news release, “because from a community service perspective it artificially inflates active cases. The new process no longer provides a direct correlation between length of illness and recovery.”

Valeree Lane, public information officer with KCPH, said the county health department respects OHA’s new guidelines, but does not find the ew approach to be in the best interest of the county.

Lane said when the pandemic began, KCPH initially reached out to the county’s coronavirus patients and tracked their recovery process, “so we were able to give the community a sense of how many active cases we had and how many recoveries we had.”

She said the county was working with OHA under the original guideline that cases were considered recovered three days after the end of all coronavirus symptoms.

The median time for recovery for non-hospitalized, symptomatic coronavirus cases is 20 days, OHA said in a previous report. For hospitalized cases, the median recovery time is 26 days.

“We really felt as though waiting until 60 days to announce that a case had become recovered, and that they were going to stay active for 60 days, would lead people who are really anxious right now to assume hat people are not recovering as quickly as they used to,” Lane said.

Some community members have been opposed to KCPH no longer reporting active cases, but Lane said KCPH made the decision with the community in mind, not to hide information.

“I think it’s really important that citizens understand that public health is a service that is provided to them, and if they have questions or concerns, they should call public health,” Lane said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I haven’t talked to a member of our community. … I think this is one of those times that, instead of just assuming that, ‘Oh, a government agency is trying to hide information from us,’ Give a call. Find out what’s going on.”

New Oregon COVID-19 cases by ZIP code

This map shows new cases of COVID-19 in each ZIP code in Oregon. ZIP codes are colored by the number of cases per 10,000 residents. ZIPs are shaded to show contrast; rates in Oregon remain lower than most of the U.S.

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