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'We are seeing great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 across Oregon and saving lives.'

POOL PHOTO: STATESMAN JOURNAL - Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, center, talks with a bus driver during a Feb. 24 visit to a West Salem elementary school. Brown is reducing the risk levels for some counties beginning in late February.A steep drop in COVID-19 infections nationwide was reflected recently with 16 Oregon counties improving their infection risk levels.

Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday, Feb. 23, that 10 of the state's 36 counties were dropping off the extreme risk tier. CAPITAL BUREAUThe moves means that restrictions on businesses, dining and activities will be less strict on Friday for a long list of Oregon cities. Among the larger cities that will see less restrictions are Beaverton, McMinnville and Oregon City.

"We are seeing great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 across Oregon and saving lives," Brown said. "Oregonians continue to step up and make smart choices."

Five counties — Jefferson (Madras), Benton (Corvallis), Josephine (Grants Pass) Douglas (Roseburg) and Coos (Coos Bay) — remain at the extreme risk level. That compares to 26 counties in late November at the height of the holiday spike in infections.

The state's four-tier risk level rates counties at lower, moderate, high and extreme levels for COVID-19 spread. Ranking is determined by measures including total cases, cases per 100,000 people and positive infection rate. The higher the level, the more restrictive the rules on businesses and activities.

The levels are adjusted every two weeks. The ratings announced Feb 9 expire Thursday, Feb. 25. The new ratings go into effect Friday, Feb. 26. Announcement of the next level changes will be March 9 and will go into effect March 12.

On Thursday, Feb. 25, Brown extended her declaration of a state of emergency for 60 days, until May 2. Extending the state of emergency means the state and continue to use federal COVID-19 relief and assistance, including assistance with vaccine distribution.

"When I issued my first state of emergency declaration last March, there were 14 known cases of COVID-19 in Oregon," Brown said. "Today, we have now seen more than 150,000 cases across the state, and, sadly, 2,194 deaths.

"As we vaccinate thousands of Oregonians each day and reopen more school buildings and businesses as safely as possible, now is not the time to let up our guard."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Some counties in Oregon are seeing their COVID-19 risk levels drop. The decision could allow some indoor dining for local restaurants.

Missing the mark

Some of the state's most populous counties improved their level, though Portland just missed the mark. Washington and Clackamas counties near Portland moved from high to moderate risk. Neighboring Multnomah County, which includes Portland, was just above the cut-off point for cases per 100,000.

Other than Multnomah, the largest county to not improve its level was Deschutes, which had already dropped to high level in the previous report. The county showed significant improvement in cases and is on pace to move to the moderate tier on March 9.

In Central Oregon, Crook dropped from extreme to high level. Jefferson remains at extreme.

The risk levels are part of a spate of good news on the COVID-19 front. Case have dropped 44% nationwide over the past 14 days, according to The New York Times survey of state health agencies. Deaths are down 28% in the same period.

Oregon was part of the trend, with a 34% drop in cases and a 54% decline in deaths. Oregon continues to rank 49th out of 50 states on a key measure that averages cases over seven days and adjusts the number for infections per 100,000 people.

Oregon has nine cases per 100,000. Only Hawaii, with three, had a lower mark. Among Oregon's neighbors, Washington and Nevada each had 11. California was at 17. The worst rates were in South Carolina, at 46 and New York at 38.

Dominate variant emerging

While public health officials are hopeful that the trend will continue as the slow pace of vaccination picks up in coming months. But experts remain concerned about a spate of variants that spread faster and may be more virulent. One first discovered in the United Kingdom has been reported in three cases in Oregon.

The Centers for Disease Control has forecast that the "U.K. variant" could be the predominate infection by the end of March. Another variant, from South Africa, has been shown in early research to be more virulent and deadly, and can possibly bypass the current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Both companies are working on revisions of the vaccine to deal with the variants. The CDC has said even if some variants infect those who are inoculated, the vaccine will at least protect against severe and fatal symptoms.

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