Counties that might fall back into the state's most restrictive extreme risk level for COVID-19 spread will be given a two-week grace period on heightened restrictions, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday.
Brown said the state's low overall infection rates and its steep trend downward since the winter holidays allowed for "a bit more time" for some state trouble spots. The state currently ranks 49th of the 50 states in new infections per 100,000 people — only Hawaii scores better. With a positive test rate of 3.9%, Oregon is firmly on track for numbers to continue downward statewide, and 1 million vaccine shots have been administered to residents.
The governor said she made the decision to waive the restrictions "recognizing the challenges businesses encounter when facing a switch back and forth between extreme risk and other risk levels," Brown said.
The drop to the higher risk level meant that restaurants could offer limited indoor dining, a key change during the cold, wet winter months that have stretched into March.
Higher numbers would have been required a return to the tighter restrictions on businesses, dining, and activities. Brown's message did not include any changes to rules covering counties already in the extreme risk level.
Brown had announced Feb. 23 that 10 counties had dropped out of the extreme risk level, the highest of the four-tier rating system that also includes high risk, moderate and lower. The higher the risk level, the more restrictions are in place on businesses, dining and activities.
It was a dose of good news after a period in which most of the state had been in extreme risk at one point or another.
"For the second time in a row, we are seeing great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 across Oregon and saving lives," Brown said on Feb. 23.
Of the counties on the extreme risk rating prior to Feb. 23, Brown announced seven had dropped one step to higher risk: Crook, Jackson, Lane, Marion, Polk, Umatilla and Yamhill counties. Malheur and Union dropped to medium, while Wasco fell all the way to lower.
Five counties: Benton, Coos, Douglas, Jefferson and Josephine are on the extreme list.
'The warning week'
Risk level adjustments are made every two weeks. But measurements are taken every Friday and analyzed each Monday. The numbers are published weekly, with the period between reassignments called "the warning week."
With the next assignment of risk levels set to be announced March 9 and go into effect March 12, state officials evidently saw some counties trending back up to extreme risk.
Brown's office did not say what counties were of concern. The "warning week" numbers indicate trends, but the final status would also be determined adding in the as-yet unknown statistics of this week through Friday.
Of those that dropped out of the extreme Risk category but are showing a reverse in trends during the warning week are Jackson and Malheur counties. Among medium and small counties, Baker showed an increase in cases and infection rate.
Less clear are the status of Marion County, which includes the state capital of Salem. It has seen a moderate upswing in numbers. State health officials and the governor will make the final decisions based on the most recent data.
The drop in infections was part of the recent good news that has seen overall new infections down their winter holiday period highs. A third vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson has arrived in the state and the first 100 doses sent to each county, with a total of 34,000 expected to immediately follow.
But there was cautionary news as well. Two potentially more virulent and easier to spread versions of the virus showed up in Oregon.
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