COVID-exhausted Oregon swamped by virus surge
A possible fifth wave of the COVID-19 is swelling in a pandemic-exhausted Oregon that less than a month ago seemed to be on the verge of recovery.
"The highly contagious delta variant has increased tenfold in the past two weeks in Oregon, and it is now estimated to be associated with 80% of the new cases in Oregon," Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's top epidemiologist, said Tuesday evening, July 27.
The Oregon Health Authority reported 804 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, July 28, and five deaths. It had reported 1,032 on Tuesday, along with five deaths. Statistics released on Tuesday at times are inflated by lagging reports from the weekend.
Hospitalizations were up to 274 from 259. The positive test rate was up to 7.8% from 7.4% the previous day. OHA officials have said that a rate above 5% indicates a spike in cases.
OHA's weekly report on variants showed 179 confirmed cases of the highly contagious delta variant, up from 90 the week before. While less deadly and sweeping than earlier spikes before vaccines were available, hospitals are filling up with the unvaccinated as local and state officials in Oregon both decline to issue directives to curb the outbreak, unlike other states.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the states of California and New York, have issued requirements that workers be either vaccinated or face weekly testing for the virus.
During the past two days, Gov. Kate Brown's office has said it was studying actions elsewhere and consulting with the Centers for Disease Control. Late Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority suggested residents in all counties wear masks in public spaces indoors. But underlined that it was not a directive.
Brown's office also said it would not force the cancellation of the Pendleton Round-Up in September if infections and hospitalizations remain high in Eastern Oregon or the rest of the state.
"No – the governor does not control individual events," Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said.
Lifting of restrictions
Oregon's latest rise in cases comes less than a month after a celebratory announcement that nearly all pandemic restrictions on business and social activities in the state would be lifted on June 30. Brown had said she would remove the risk level restrictions on all counties in the state, regardless of infection levels, if 70% of residents statewide had received at least one shot of vaccine.
While just short of the goal, Brown announced that she would give the green light to reopen the state in time for the "near normal" July 4th holiday sought by President Joe Biden.
The announcement also seemed to be a truce in the political wars over Brown's emergency orders that had been in place since March 2020. OHA would continue in an advisory role, help get vaccines to centers that wanted it, and compile records on the pandemic. But county health officials would now be empowered to determine what was best for their communities. Any actions needed to curb the virus would be decided by county commissioners.
The blanket lifting of restrictions came despite a wildly different rate of infection and vaccinations across the state. Several counties in the Willamette Valley, Deschutes County and some northern coastal areas were above the 70% mark. A high vaccination rate in the three-county Portland area inflated the overall state numbers.
Elsewhere, vaccination rates were under 40%,especially in Eastern and Southwest Oregon. Many of the counties had small populations, but the list also included Umatilla County, which includes Pendleton, and Douglas County, which includes Roseburg.
At first, the decline in the virus seemed to hold, even as other parts of the country reported an increase in the delta variant, first reported in India. While most scientists said it was no more virulent than the original virus, the delta variant spread up to twice as fast, roaring through parts of the South and Midwest like a viral wildfire.
In Oregon, the Independence Day holiday came and went with a buoyant public celebration across the state. On July 4, the state's seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases fell to 127, according to The New York Times national statistical summary.
But the eddy soon ended. As some independent epidemiologists had forecast, the lifting of restrictions on counties regardless of their individual infection and vaccination levels created a spike in new cases in areas where most residents were not vaccinated.
A result has been an explosion of cases. On Tuesday, Umatilla County reported 8% of all new COVID-19 cases in Oregon, though it only represents 2% of the state population. The county's case rate was more than seven times higher than Multnomah and Washington counties, which both have more than 500,000 more residents than Umatilla County.
Hospitals filled up, with at one point just 8 of 81 intensive care unit beds unoccupied.
The length of the current spike isn't yet known, but Oregon, which reported more than 1,000 new cases on July 27, had not reported more than 1,000 cases in a day since a brief spike in April. While the increase is still forming, Oregon had not averaged more than 1,000 cases per day since Jan. 21.
Brown and state health officials have said that while the state does have ultimate authority over public health, for now it would continue the policy of local autonomy.
Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said in mid-July that the state did not want to make blanket directives on the "highly political" issue of mandatory vaccinations and other requirements.
Federal and state statements were often contradictory. On July 27, the CDC said masks should be worn indoors only in areas where the virus was spiking. However, all schools in the country should mandate masks in the classroom.
Oregon said masks should be worn indoors in all counties regardless of transmission levels. But school mask decisions were up to local authorities, with no overall suggestion from OHA.
The New York Times reported that the differences were confusing and subject to interpretation based on political views. Republicans leaders in Oregon were reluctant to endorse anything that seemed coercive to their constituents.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, represents the largest legislative district in Oregon, including Baker, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Malheur, Wasco, Wheeler, and parts of Deschutes and Lake counties. Malheur and Lake are the only counties in the state that have vaccinated less than 40% of residents. Infection rates range from virtually non-existent in Grant and Wheeler counties to extreme in Jefferson County.
Findley told the Baker City Herald that a mask mandate would be a tough sell in much of his largely rural district, suggesting "thorough education" about "appropriate precautions" instead.
"We've been here before — masks mandates are difficult to enforce and put an undue burden on our businesses who become responsible for implementing a mandate at their doors," Findley said.
Findley declined to say if he personally had been vaccinated. "I will not share my personal medical information," Findley said. "I believe the decision to get the vaccine is a personal, private matter between an individual and their physician."
More shots per day
OHA said it would push on with vaccination efforts, all voluntary. Under a 1986 law, Oregon is the only state in the nation that specifically exempts medical and health workers from any vaccine requirements. Private companies in other industries could require vaccination as a condition of employment. Many public workers cannot be compelled to be vaccinated because of union contracts negotiated with state and local governments and agencies.
The current Oregon Health Authority count shows that 68.6% of eligible adults older than 18 have had one shot of vaccine. The state percentage is actually somewhat higher because some federal programs aren't captured by the state count.
The new goal was set of 80% vaccinations, or more than 2.72 million adults, by Aug. 31. That is looking unlikely at current pace. The state needs more than 389,000 additional shots to hit the mark.
To reach the goal, OHA says it would need to be inoculating 11,443 new people per day. The latest seven-day average was 2,064 people per day.
Reporters Bryce Dole of the East Oregonian and Jayson Jacoby of The Baker City Herald contributed to this report.
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