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Oregon's plan for combating wildfires will include expanding forest treatments, paying federal firefighters a higher wage, converting seasonal firefighting positions into permanent jobs and investing in disaster recovery efforts.

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Gov. Kate Brown speaks to a gathering of government officials and firefighters Thursday in Eagle Point.

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State officials have scheduled six sessions, starting Thursday, Oct. 14, for the public and businesses to weigh in on a rule allowing workers to keep some unemployment benefits even if they have barriers to their returning to work.

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WASHINGTON - The White House announced Wednesday that it will buy $1 billion worth of rapid, at-home coronavirus tests to address ongoing shortages, a plan hailed by public health experts who called the move long overdue.

The actions will quadruple the number of tests available to Americans by December, according to Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. The news follows Monday's decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow the sale of an antigen test from U.S.-based Acon Laboratories.

The White House expects that that decision and the purchase of the additional tests will increase the number of at-home tests to 200 million per month by December.

"This is a big deal" said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, who said the spotty availability of rapid tests had hampered efforts to track and combat the surge of coronavirus cases driven by the hyper-transmissable delta variant. "The White House is beginning to take testing as seriously as they've taken vaccinations."

The administration is also aiming to increase free testing by doubling President Joe Biden's earlier commitment to expand the number of pharmacies in the federal government's free testing program to 20,000, Zients said at a news briefing Wednesday. Biden last month announced a coronavirus response plan that envisioned a significant expansion of testing capacity.

The U.S. has lagged behind several European and Asian countries in testing for much of the pandemic, with many Americans reporting in recent months that they have struggled to get testing appointments or to be able to purchase at-home tests. While the FDA has authorized several at-home tests, public health experts faulted the agency for not moving faster to greenlight more of them to expedite the tests' availability.

"These tests are cheap to make - and there's a lot of demand for it out there," said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. "The reason the market hasn't worked is because the FDA has made it very difficult for these tests to get out into the marketplace."

The FDA referred requests for comment to the White House. One agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said the main difference between the U.S. and countries with cheaper, more available tests is that those governments heavily invested in the tests. Having large purchasing agreements, including the one announced Wednesday by the White House, drives production up and prices down, which other countries began doing earlier, the official said,.

The official also pushed back on the notion that the FDA has been slow to authorize the tests, noting that the agency has approved several of them and some countries have lower standards. FDA officials have expressed concern in the past that some rapid tests, which deliver results within minutes, are less accurate than the slower PCR tests that need to be evaluated in a laboratory and can take days to deliver results. Australian company Ellume this month recalled roughly 195,000 of its at-home coronavirus antigen tests after discovering an increased chance that the affected kits would return false positive results.

In the White House briefing, Zients said the testing companies Quidel and OraSure are also rapidly expanding the production of their at-home tests to get more on the market. When pressed on why the White House did not increase the availability of such tests sooner, Zients said the tests only became available earlier this year.

By the end of the year, he said, the U.S. should have about half a billion tests available per month between at-home tests and PCR tests that people can take at a local pharmacy, clinic or doctors office. "Together, the steps we're taking will ensure that every American, no matter their income level or Zip code, can access accurate, convenient and affordable testing," he said.

Experts had clamored for the government to invest in widespread availability of rapid tests, saying that improved detection of coronavirus outbreaks could have tamped down the virus' spread, particularly in the early months of the pandemic.

"This slow trickle of [emergency authorizations] is all but promising to get us a large supply of rapid tests just in time for them to no longer be as effective against delta," added Michael Mina, a Harvard University epidemiologist who has advocated for at-home testing. "There are amazing tests produced in the billions that simply don't exist here in the U.S."

One potential complication of the expansion of at-home testing is the impact on official counts of coronavirus infections. Some of the at-home tests have an app that helps people report positive cases so they get added to the official government tally. But the administration will also rely on people to self-report when an at-home test shows they are infected, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

Some experts said it will be important for the government to educate people about when the tests should be used, how to use them and what to do with the results.

"It's a relief to have access to rapid testing but it will be critical to understand how to broadly disseminate and give guidance about when best to use these tests," said Kavita Patel, a primary care physician and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Obama administration. "The last thing we want is for tests to go unused and sit on shelves but you also need to give guidance to understand when these tests should be used."

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Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday that she was "gravely concerned" about an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across Eastern Oregon with a common factor  — the Pendleton Round-Up. During a morning press call, Brown and state health officials gave an upbeat update on the state's efforts against the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.Statewide, the COVID-19 surge of late summer and early fall “appears to have reached its peak,” said Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Tom Jeanne.Brown hailed the state’s efforts in curbing new infections and hospitalizations as the state appeared to descend from a two-month spike in cases that set new pandemic records in Oregon.It was only during a question and answer period at the end of the presentation that the Pendleton Round-Up spike was addressed as a sour point in the state's progress.The East Oregonian newspaper was the first to report Monday that the spike in COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County had been tied by local health officials to the annual rodeo event held Sept. 15-18.The East Oregonian reported Tuesday that at least 68 COVID-19 cases have been traced back to the event and all its venues, up from 49 Monday. Health officials across Eastern Oregon reported spikes in new cases, as did some in eastern Washington and Idaho.“That was a very large outdoor event,” Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist, said of the Round-Up. “And there may not have been great compliance with masking there. We do expect to see some impact on cases from that, but it’s still too early to know the full extent of that.” When pressed for her level of alarm amid the outbreak, Brown said first and foremost that she did not attend the Pendleton Round-Up because she was concerned about community spread.Brown said she was well aware of the regional case spike “as a result of the Pendleton Round-Up,” but she still said “it’s a little early,” noting that the Round-Up only ended a few weeks ago.But the state's own numbers, along with those from federal and non-government groups, painted a darker picture.There were 424 COVID-19 deaths in Oregon in September as of Monday, making September the third deadliest month of the pandemic.September has already surpassed August's death toll and could exceed the January total of 476 by the end of the month on Thursday.Oregon's Hospital Capacity Web System (HOSCAP), which tracks availability of hospital beds in the state, reported Monday that only 6 of 89 staffed adult Intensive Care Unit beds located east of the Cascades were available.The Pendleton Round-Up was canceled in 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns, but plans moved forward in early summer as Brown had dropped many restrictions on activities when COVID-19 cases appeared to bottom out at the end of June.The event went off as scheduled despite a steep wave of cases linked to the the highly contagious delta variant that swept across Oregon and filled state hospitals to capacity.It’s still too early to say if cases foreshadow a new spike statewide and health officials are watching closely for that possibility, Jeanne said.Brown did not voice any regret in not overriding local officials' decision to go ahead with the event. The Round-Up brought tens of thousands of people into an area with high infection rates and where just 51% of eligible adults were vaccinated. Many of the visitors came from areas in neighboring states where vaccination rates were also low.Brown said the state had pressed officials across Oregon to encourage safety protocols like mask mandates. She pointed to other states where people are gathering en masse without a mandate. “If you watch an Ohio football game in Ohio, those stadiums filled with 100,000 people, there is hardly a mask there,” Brown said. “That is very different here in Oregon.”Prior to the mid-September event in Pendleton, Brown had said it was up to local officials to ensure the safety of the crowd. As for those who attended, she said they should mask up, follow social distancing guidelines, but otherwise "let 'er buck," the Round-Up's slogan.But masks were few and far between throughout the Round-Up, even though organizers were offering thousands of them and had posted signs encouraging masking and distancing. Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara has said the number of COVID-19 cases tied to the Round-Up is an undercount, as many people who have tested positive, and are aware of others who have, are not cooperating with health officials. The reported cases include people who had COVID-19 symptoms prior to the event and yet still chose to come, officials have said. “When so many people come together in one location, it is inevitable,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said in an email. “The same thing has happened each time restrictions in Oregon have been lifted.”No county or state officials voiced any interest publicly in stopping the Pendleton Round-Up from happening. Until this past week, COVID-19 cases had declined statewide for three consecutive weeks.But state officials acknowledged in the press conference that cases had flat-lined over the previous week. They cited the Pendleton Round-Up outbreak specifically as one of several factors contributing to this trend. Last week, Umatilla County reported 505 new COVID-19 cases, the county’s second-highest total since the pandemic started.On Tuesday, the county’s average daily cases reached a new pandemic high, topping its previous record set in August, a month when more county residents died with COVID-19 than any other month — 22. But public health directors in Umatilla County and the Umatilla Indian Reservation have voiced alarm in recent days about the speed with which the outbreak has unfolded.Umatilla County officials have said they are preparing for the surge to continue for several weeks. In response, tribal officials quickly reinstated pandemic restrictions that hearken back to those from the pandemic’s early stages, including limited social gatherings. Brown said she was “very, very concerned,” adding that rural communities generally have less access to health care than counties in Western Oregon.“Honestly, I’m very concerned about the capacity of health care workers themselves,” Brown said. “They have been working day in and day out for the last several weeks providing incredibly valuable patient care, life-saving care. And to have an additional surge on top of it is incredibly frustrating, I’m sure, for them after they have worked so hard.” In August, Brown announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for teachers and health care workers with an Oct. 18 deadline, citing the alarming rise in cases driven by the delta variant.Besides Wheeler County, more than a quarter of health care workers in every county in Eastern Oregon county are unvaccinated, according to state data. All would be fired or forced to resign under Brown’s current mandate. Last week, Umatilla County’s public health officer, Dr. Jon Hitzman, said if a COVID-19 surge were to follow the Pendleton Round-Up, its peak would occur right around the mandate’s deadline, placing a greater strain on hospitals that are already short-staffed. In the press conference, Brown said she was “pushing forward on our vaccine requirement for health care workers because we have a really stark choice right now: a vaccinated workforce that can continue to work through our COVID surges like the one we’re likely to see again from the Pendleton Round-Up, or an unvaccinated workforce that’s depleted by quarantines and illness.”Much of the briefing was taken up with mostly upbeat news of overall drop of statewide cases, approval of booster shots for some Pfizer vaccine recipients, and the usual requests for continued voluntary masking and social distancing.The rising numbers in Umatilla County led the independent pandemic monitoring group COVID Act Now to raise the county's risk rating to its highest level: Extreme.Since first appearing in Wuhan, China at the very end of 2019, COVID-19 has infected 232.6 million people worldwide and killed 4.76 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In the United States, 43.2 million cases have been reported and 692,058 have died.Bryce Dole is a reporter with the East Oregonian. Gary A. Warner is a statehouse reporter for the Oregon Capital Bureau.