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Governor says variants and increase spread of virus force some counties into the high-risk category.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Several Oregon counties were bumped back up into high-risk categories for COVID-19 because of increased spread of the virus.COVID-19 infections are rising in Oregon, putting two-thirds of all counties into what, for now, is the highest possible level of restrictions, Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday, April 20.

The new county risk levels include nearly a dozen special waivers granted under Brown to keep counties from going into the most severe set of restrictions on activities, businesses and events.

Brown said the waivers were possible because of advances in vaccination numbers and a drop in severe cases of COVID-19, along with fewer deaths. But she said new variants that are able to morph inside infected bodies could prove a future challenge. Some of the variants have been shown to be more contagious and lethal than the version that appeared in the United States early last year.

oregon capital bureau"As we face more contagious variants and increased spread of COVID-19 in our communities, the best way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated," Brown said. "Until you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors are fully vaccinated, it's also critical that we all continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance, and stay home when sick."

The new risk list that goes into effect Friday, April 23, has no counties at extreme risk, 23 at high risk, three at moderate risk and 10 at lower risk. The levels are determined by the measure of new cases, cases per 100,000 people and positive test rate. As the levels rise, so does the severity of limits on activities, events, dining and shopping.

A mandate from Brown is keeping 11 counties from going into the extreme risk category even if the county level data suggests they should be. On April 6 she ordered that no county be put in extreme risk if the statewide number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients remained under 300 and didn't rise by more than 15 percent in a week.

With 25% of state residents immunized, including 75% of those 70 and older, the upswing in infections hasn't always been followed by increases in hospitalizations and deaths. The Oregon Health Authority reported Tuesday that 270 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon, below the threshold.

That means residents of the 11 counties don't have to go all the way back to the harshest curbs of the pandemic, they top out at the rules associated with the high risk level. The counties are Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion, and Polk counties.

Under an earlier plan adopted by Brown, counties that moved to a lower risk level only to boomerang back up were held at the lower level of restrictions and given two weeks to get their virus numbers back down.

Brown's cap only extends to the extreme level. Seven counties moved from either lower or moderate to high. All will have to follow the stricter guidelines that go with their new risk level status.

Amid the stampede of counties moving to higher risk levels, two were exceptions, with dropping infection numbers leading to a drop in restrictions. Curry County went from high to moderate, while Union County stepped down from moderate to low.

The rising county numbers reflect statewide statistics. Oregon recorded 8,276 cases between April 4 and April 17. The statewide measure of cases per 100,000 residents is 195.4 and the test positivity rate is 5.1%

For comparison, if Oregon were a county, it would be on the lip between high and extreme risk level ratings. For larger counties, 200 cases and above per 100,000 people is the trigger for an extreme level rating. The test positivity is just slightly above the highest rate the state has said will keep the infection rate flat.

The next risk level adjustment will be announced May 4 and take effect May 7.

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