Gov. Kate Brown said Friday, April 30, that she has no intention of rolling back new executive orders issued to fight the nation's worst rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations hitting Oregon.
"Cases are widespread, driven by new, more contagious variants," Brown said during a virtual press conference.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported April 30 that Oregon has the highest rate of new infections and hospitalizations of any state in the nation. Cases of COVID-19 have risen 38% in the past two weeks, while hospitalizations are up 43%. Nationwide, both are in decline.
Fifteen counties already exceeded the extreme risk numbers at the very top of the state's four-tier COVID-19 risk chart. But Brown had ordered that the counties would not need to resort to the most severe restrictions as long as the state's hospital system was not overly taxed. She set 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations as the "tripwire" for restoring the ban on indoor dining and strict limits on activities and gatherings.
When cases topped 300 on Monday, April 26, Brown lifted the moratorium on extreme risk limits, putting 15 counties into extreme risk restrictions Friday, April 30. On Friday, the state reported 339 COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state.
GOP, counties push back
With early and sometimes heavy restrictions, Oregon has one of the lowest case rates and deaths since the pandemic began spreading in the first months of 2020. Brown said decisions often had to be made pitting "lives and livelihoods."
"As your governor, I chose to save lives," she said.
Brown said more than half of state residents had been at least partially vaccinated. The first to receive the vaccine were elderly in nursing homes, who made up more than half the deaths from COVID-19 in the state. While the daily death toll has fallen since its peak last winter, Brown said the current infection rate was rising too quickly and new variants that are more contagious and in some cases, lethal, meant the recent spike had to be taken as seriously as earlier outbreaks.
Brown's latest actions included extending her authority over public health by extending the emergency declaration she issued in March 2020 until at least June 28. The orders to instigate the extreme risk and extend the emergency set off protests from some political and business leaders.
A Republican-led effort was started in the Legislature to initiate bills to curb Brown's powers or bar another extension. "Literally everything in Oregonians' lives are being dictated by one person," Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, April 29.
A group of commissioners from 27 counties, along with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, sent a letter Tuesday, April 27, to Brown asking her to reconsider her order and instead give local governments more control to make decisions appropriate to their counties and cities.
"The time has come to allow our communities the opportunity to move forward while embracing continued health and safety precautions," according to the letter.
Brown said she knew the pandemic had hammered small businesses, especially restaurants and bars, who have been whipsawed by closing, openings and restrictions for more than a year. A special $20 million fund was being created by the Legislature to go to businesses that take a financial hit under the latest restrictions.
Three to four weeks
Oregon health officials have also struggled with "vaccine hesitancy" across the state from people unsure of whether they should get inoculated. But vaccinations have also become a political statement, with some counties in Republican areas reporting a dwindling number of people seeking shots.
Brown said supplies would be redirected to areas where there is still heavy demand. Lane County announced Thursday, April 29, that it would receive triple the number of doses it had been getting each week. Walk-in vaccinations have also started sporadically, copying the statewide efforts in New York and California.
Peter Graven, a lead data scientist at Oregon Health & Science University, who has advised Brown throughout the pandemic, said it would only take three weeks of observing the restrictions before the virus spread would stall. He reiterated Brown's position that maintaining a brisk rate of vaccination was the key to getting the state back to something close to normal by the end of June.
Without the current restrictions, Graven said 176 people could die and over 700 people could be hospitalized in the next few months, primarily in May.
Graven said a short stoppage of activity would pay off in the short and long term. "We have just three to four weeks until we will be in good shape," he said.
Relying on science and data
While extolling the personal health and community cooperation shown by those who were vaccinated, Brown said a decision to not be vaccinated was a personal choice.
But trying to stop people from getting vaccinated during a declared state public health emergency was not acceptable. Brown said she was aware of the Thursday incident in which anti-vaccination activists heckled students arriving at a school-sponsored clinic at Bend High School. Police were called and the group dispersed.
School staff also received often anonymous messages calling them "Nazis" for approving the vaccinations on the school property. In Oregon, anyone age 15 or older can agree to medical services — including immunization — without parental consent.
Brown said the state of emergency declaration had been called to stop the spread of the virus, and vaccines and other methods used to stamp it out in Oregon. The vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and the best way to stop the crisis that has killed more than 575,000 Americans in a little more than a year, according to health officials.
"While I am governor, we are going to continue to rely on science and data," she said.
Trying to stop anyone from getting vaccinated is illegal under Oregon law and punitive measures are enhanced by the public health emergency. "I expect Oregonians to comply with these orders," she said.
As of Friday, COVID-19 had killed 3,171,155 worldwide and 575,746 in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The Oregon Health Authority reported Friday that 2,495 Oregon residents had died from COVID-19.
On Friday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a key forecaster used by public officials around the country, said at current rates of spread, areas of the world such as India and South America would continue to see steep increases in fatalities. By Aug. 1, the virus is projected to have 5.05 million worldwide.
Vaccination has cut transmission and fatalities from the virus have slowed, but not stopped, in the United States. IHME forecast that by Aug. 1, deaths would total more than 602,000 in the United States and 2,670 in Oregon.
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