A majority of coronavirus infections from Multnomah County’s record-breaking week reportedly spread among friends and family, prompting county health officials Monday to encourage the use of face coverings in social settings.
Infections within immigrant and refugee communities drove some portion of the spike, officials said.
But county officials declined to quantify how many of the nearly 300 new infections were linked to so-called social clusters.
Nor would they identify the specific immigrant and refugee groups impacted, saying more information will be released after officials speak with community leaders for at least a half-dozen populations.
The continued spread among vulnerable communities highlights the yawning gap of infections within Multnomah County, where people of color have accounted for nearly 2 ½ times more infections than whites over the past seven weeks.
County officials say the latest infections also underscore the importance of maintaining safeguards when socializing among friends and relatives. Those are the people “who probably are more likely to infect you,” said Kim Toevs, Multnomah County’s communicable disease director.
“It may feel uncomfortable or awkward to wear face coverings or masks as you are socially connecting with friends, but now would still be a good time to do that – not just when you’re in a grocery store,” she added.
Oregon’s most populous county leads the state with 1,849 confirmed or presumed infections out of more than 7,000 total. Officials acknowledged both an uptick in new cases and in the rate of infections among people tested.
Within the past week, officials reported 293 new or suspected infections in Multnomah County, including two single-day records of 84 on Sunday and 49 on Friday. Monday’s tally was 17.
Unlike in the past, the recent number of high infections are not tied to any single event such as an outbreak at a fruit facility or inside a nursing home.
Instead, officials say they are seeing more instances of clustered infections spreading in “really close social networks,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County health officer.
“People may be lulled into feeling more at ease, understandably, around people they know well,” she said.
Exactly how many of the nearly 300 recent cases are tied to exposures among friends and family remains unclear. Asked for a specific tally Monday, county health officials said they would consider whether to release it.
“I can’t give you a specific percentage, but I would say the majority,” Toevs said.
Officials also would not immediately disclose how many distinct clusters spawned those infections nor the most infections linked to a single cluster, saying a decision to release the information would be made by Rachael Banks, the county’s public health director.
Kate Willson, a county spokeswoman, offered no timeline for when that decision would be made.
County officials on Monday reiterated that they have seen only a handful of infections reported among the demonstrators in Portland who, for nearly a month, joined a nationwide movement protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The most recent infections are not believed to be linked to Multnomah County’s official reopening Friday, either. Officials expect to see more infections in the weeks ahead.
Toevs said county officials are seeing an increase in larger family settings, particularly multigenerational households. There’s particular concern about increased infections in “a variety of different immigrant communities.”
Toevs declined to identify which groups have seen a recent spike in infections but said they are among “seven or eight different distinct immigrant, refugee and ethnic populations.”
County officials would prefer that impacted community members first learn about infections from “trusted partners,” such as community-based organizations, rather than the mainstream media, she said. Officials said they’d likely be willing to release more information publicly later this week.
Some of the recent infections are among residents who live in mid-Multnomah County ZIP codes that have consistently reported high cases, officials said. The county health department previously criticized a decision by the Oregon Health Authority to disclose those ZIP code-level case counts, saying the location of where someone was infected was more important.
County officials gave themselves mixed marks Monday for their ability to reach impacted communities to slow the spread of the virus.
Toevs noted that officials were quick to share information in multiple languages and trained health workers from culturally specific communities. But she also acknowledged that the county could have moved earlier and faster to sign contracts with groups who have established relationships with community members.
Vines said it was “really fair” to question the county’s response addressing infections among people of color.
The pandemic has shined a spotlight on decades-old structural issues – including racism and disparities in health care – that cannot immediately be undone, she said.
“To rebuild that trust doesn’t happen in six weeks,” she said. “But I would say we are really making an effort.”
— Brad Schmidt; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt