Schools should cancel or curtail some extracurricular activities to help Oregon maintain what appears to be the beginning of a decline from record high numbers of COVID-19 infections, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Multiple forecasts during the past week showed a peak in the two-month surge of infections driven by the highly contagious delta variant. Hospitals remain nearly full and case reports are still twelve times what they were in early July.
The fragile ebb in the worst of the crisis will be challenged by the flood of schoolchildren returning to class. "It is with mixed emotions that we are welcoming our kids back to school at this time," Brown told reporters during a morning press call.
Brown was joined by health and education officials to announce additional, voluntary efforts to go along with the mandatory vaccination of school employees and mask mandates for students and staff. The state will issue School Health Advisories on a regular basis. The first one asks schools to cancel or curtail extracurricular activities through a least Oct. 1. Back-to-school events should be done online, if possible. Schools should also hold as much activity outdoors as possible, including school meals and physical education classes.
"The safety protocols put in place by your school not only make it safer for everyone, but they also help ensure that our kids actually get to stay in school," said Colt Gill, Oregon Education Department director.
While children can get ill from COVID-19, they rarely get severely sick, Gill said. But they can bring the infections home with them and spread it to at-risk people such as the elderly and immunocompromised.
Round-Up rides again
Brown confirmed her order for mandatory vaccinations, saying that staff who are not fully vaccinated cannot have contact with students or other school employees.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's epidemiologist, said the Oregon Health Authority was looking into an 8.8% increase in the number of new COVID-19 infections in Marion County.
The uptick comes as the Oregon State Fair in Salem has just concluded. Brown had ordered that crowded outdoor events have mandatory masking rules, but television reports from the fair showed the majority of those inside were not wearing masks.
The rules are also in place for the Pendleton Round-Up, which begins Sept. 11 in Umatilla County. Brown said she hope fair organizers would follow state rules and venues that violated the rule could face state sanctions. She said she hoped attendees will wear masks and be aware of social distancing and other ways to prevent getting or spreading the virus.
"Let 'er buck,' Brown said, using the Round-Up's signature saying.
Brown has attended the Round-Up in prior years and even rode a horse in the parade. She did not go to the state fair and will not be in Pendleton next week out of concern for "public spread" of the virus.
Major public health forecasts indicated for the first time in early September that the top of the spike may have been reached. The growth in infections may have peaked as early as Aug. 25 in Oregon, according to the widely followed COVID-19 monitoring and forecasting of The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Oregon Health & Science University forecasted that hospitalizations for COVID-19 were expected to peak at an estimated 1,208 patients on Monday, Sept. 6. Tuesday's OHA report showed 1,140 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, down from 1,172 reported on Friday.
"We're in a dire state, but I am seeing some signs that this is going to level out in the next week," said Dr. Peter Graven, the lead forecaster, in a statement accompanying the Sept. 2 report.
The OHSU model showed that with current mask usage and other safeguards, cases would drop back to pre-surge levels of under 200 hospitalizations by the last two weeks in October. If the trendline continued, the number of hospitalizations statewide could be under a dozen by mid-December. The next OHSU forecast is due Thursday.
The World Health Organization said last week that the delta variant wave worldwide had started to fall, with the United States somewhat behind Europe and other regions.
The trends won't be known for sure until additional reports during the next week show the drop continuing.
Deaths on the rise
Sidelinger said an increase in voluntary mask-wearing and other efforts to slow transmission of COVID-19 could shorten the timeline for getting to a lower level. On the flip side, if people drop safeguards too early, it could push the recovery into November and closer to impacting the winter holidays.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, with the possibility of new variants as long as large numbers of people worldwide remain unvaccinated. Once it infects someone, the virus can mutate within its host, and release a variant of the original infection.
"This is a crisis that is largely being driven by people who have not yet been vaccinated," said Sidelinger.
As of Tuesday, there have been 221.5 million cases and more than 4.58 million deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. More than 5.37 million people worldwide are expected to die of COVID-19 by Dec. 1, according to a the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The United States last week passed 40 million reported cases and deaths are at 649,271, according to Johns Hopkins. IHMA projects 751,417 deaths by Dec. 1.
As of Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority reported 3,326 deaths from COVID-19 during the pandemic. IHME projects 4,619 deaths in Oregon by Dec. 1.
Johns Hopkins said its survey of state and local health agencies showed that 44,558 vaccine doses were administered nationwide Monday. More than 176 million people are fully vaccinated, about 51 % of the U.S. population.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the spike has peaked in the United States. The average daily new cases of 131,135 is down 12% from two weeks ago. The analysis showed that Oregon had dropped 33% during the same period.
The Oregon Department of Education suggests families should check their school's website or the state's "Ready Schools, Safe Learners" website at https://www.oregon.gov/ode/readyschools/Pages/default.aspx
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