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COVID cases are on the rise, though hospitalizations remain low enough to manage

Nearly two months have passed since Oregon officials lifted mask mandates for most public indoor locations, and so far, no alarming COVID surges have emerged.

Cases have increased, locally and statewide, as have COVID-related hospitalizations, but they have not surged substantially like they did multiple times during the past couple years. After peaking at 529 reported cases this past January, Crook County reported just 15 new cases for the week of April 17-23.

But that data comes with an important caveat, according to Crook County Public Health Director Katie Plumb.

"That is just what is being reported. A lot of COVID testing has moved away from providers because so many at-home tests are available now. Unless folks are sick enough to receive treatment, they are not really testing with a provider."

Public health officials have therefore turned their attention toward COVID hospitalization data, and so far, the results are still largely positive.

"We are not seeing the hospitalizations that we were," she said.

Plumb's local assessment appears to align with reports from the state. Oregon Health Authority (OHA) released its newest bi-weekly report on May 4, and it shows an increase in new cases from 5,980 on April 4-17 to 12,234 new cases between April 18 and May 1.

However, hospitalizations remain relatively low and are not increasing at the same rate as cases. OHA reported 218 COVID-related hospitalizations in its May 4 report, up from 202 two weeks earlier. The threshold to lift the mask mandate in early March was 400 or less.

"We are seeing cases and hospitalizations starting to increase and that was expected," said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations at OHA. "COVID-19 continues to be transmitted at high levels in Oregon. If you're in large groups, sooner or later you'll be exposed."

Though cases and hospitalizations are increasing, OHA reported 50 COVID-related deaths, which is much fewer than the 241 reported during the prior two weeks.

COVID cases are not the only illnesses rising since Oregon lifted its mask mandate. Flu cases have returned after a virtual absence during the pandemic. Starting in early March, the number of reported flu cases in Crook County has gradually risen to 103 cases for the week of April 17-23.

"The flu numbers are up, and it correlates with masks coming off," Plumb affirmed. "Anything that's airborne, we are going to see more illness because we don't have that added layer of protection."

She stressed that the uptick is not associated with an increase in flu testing. Dating back to last fall, approximately 600 flu tests have been administered per week in Crook County. During the omicron COVID surge, that amount surged to nearly 1,000 weekly flu tests.

"All along, we have been testing for flu, it just wasn't coming back positive until right around week 9 (of this calendar year)," Plumb said. "We were testing for flu a lot when we were testing for COVID. Now, they are showing up more as flu and not COVID."

In addition to the COVID and flu cases, several different common cold viruses as well as a stomach bug have recently emerged in the Crook County area. Because it is not required to report those illnesses to public health, Plumb could not provide specific data on their prevalence, but she did acknowledge, anecdotally, that she is hearing about these other sicknesses from a lot of people.

Historically, airborne illnesses like the common cold and flu recede as the weather warms and the same is expected in the weeks ahead.

"Just based on how the flu virus typically behaves, we anticipate it falling off during the summer months and probably picking back up in the fall," Plumb said.

COVID, by contrast, is more difficult to predict, because it is still new and has not yet settled into a seasonal pattern.

"The virus is still mutating," Plumb said.

Consequently, public health officials are encouraging people to get COVID vaccinations and boosters, particularly those who are immunocompromised or older than 50.

"We are anticipating not necessarily the massive spikes we have seen, but we will see an increase," Plumb said.

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