State braces for trouble as COVID-19 'on the march again'
The fight against COVID-19 is being undercut by precaution fatigue and mixed messages between health officials in Oregon and Washington, D.C.
The result is that after a late summer lull, new cases of the sometimes deadly virus are on the rise again in the state and U.S.
"COVID-19 is on the march again in Oregon," Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said at an online Oct. 16 briefing.
In the past two weeks, cases have risen more than 24% in Oregon. Allen called the increase a "stark reversal" of gains the state had made previously on tamping down the virus spread. The state on Friday recorded 418 new cases and six deaths, bringing the statewide totals to 38,935 cases and 617 deaths since the virus first appeared in Oregon in February.
"There is massive counter-programming that is not helpful — people with really big loudspeakers."
Allen said it was part of a continued high count of cases. "Last week's total set a new high for the pandemic," Allen said. "On three consecutive days last week we exceeded 400 cases, including a record daily total of 484."
Tests for the infection are coming back 6.4% positive. Health officials have a target of 5% to keep the virus at a plateaued level. Even a small percentage increase can lead over time to exponential growth. If cases continue on their current trajectory, Oregon could see 570 reported cases and 40 new hospitalizations each day.
"This is a troubling scenario," said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's top infectious disease expert.
No trick or treating this year
Social gatherings continue to be the main way that the infection is spread as people from different households mingle in sometimes multiple-family situations.
Allen said it is understandable that human nature is to let your guard down around people you know, especially with people "fatigued" by keeping their guard up at all times with masks, social distancing and extra hygiene. But, health authorities said that willful neglect of safeguards by some people was fueling the surge.
At a time when President Donald Trump has told Americans not to be afraid of COVID-19 despite his own infection and hospitalization, Oregon health officials are pressing the message that residents need to double down on their efforts to keep the growth of COVID-19 under control.
"There is massive counter-programming that is not helpful — people with really big loudspeakers," Allen said, without specifically naming President Trump.
Sidelinger said he had canceled his own family plans for Thanksgiving because he lives with someone over 80. The rest of the family will participate virtually.
The argument against exposure extends to Halloween traditions. "We are recommending against gathering including, sadly, trick or treating," Allen said.
Authorities also repeated warning against trick-or-treating at Halloween, saying that the interactions between dozens of people and the handing of candy back and forth could lead to infection. They suggested alternative ways to celebrate, such as appearing outside of family friends' windows so they could see costumes.
Allen said that though hospitalizations in Oregon neared their levels in July, the state has more resources and knowledge to combat serious cases of COVID-19, including increased amounts of personal protective gear and new medical protocols that do not require as many ventilators to be used.
Outbreaks near universities
After the press briefing, Gov. Kate Brown announced that Lane County, home to the University of Oregon in Eugene, was being added to the state's watch list of counties where the increase of cases is being more heavily monitored. The state reported Oct. 14 that Eugene's 97403 zip code, near the campus, had the highest per capital increase in new COVID-19 cases of any zip code in the state.
"There is no question that the spread of COVID-19 in Lane County is connected — to a degree — to student social activities" Brown said. "Social gatherings, like off-campus parties, are incredibly dangerous and spread this disease."
Brown said that keeping the virus spread under control in the state's fourth most populous county — with 382,067 residents spread from Florence on the coast to the crest of the Cascades — was a task that went beyond the University of Oregon campus.
"Once COVID-19 is spreading in the community, small family get-togethers can also lead to dozens of infections," Brown said.
Four other counties on the watch list include Clatsop, Umatilla, Malheur and Benton, the last home to the Oregon State University campus.
As of Oct. 16, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center has recorded more than 39 million COVID-19 cases in the world, with more than 1.1 million deaths. In the United States, there have been more than 8 million cases with 218,137 deaths.
Infection rates are on the rise in the United States and around much of the Northern Hemisphere as seasons shift from summer to fall and into winter. World Health Organization officials say indoor gatherings increase the likelihood of transmission. Seasonal holiday gatherings also lead to higher chances of prolonged exposure to someone who is infected.
Officials also dismissed a new dissident medical movement that has been advanced in recent days by Trump administration policy adviser Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist with no experience in communicable diseases. Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar has also discussed the controversial "herd immunity" idea with White House policy advisers.
"The Great Barrington Declaration," named after the New England town where the idea was put forth at a libertarian forum, encourages that "those not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal." Those at risk should be protected, though no plan how to do that is put forth.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins called the idea "fringe" science. Proponents say it was endorsed by thousands of medical professionals, though Britain's Sky News reported a list of those supporting the idea also attracted online trolling, with names including "Dr. Johnny Bananas" and "Dr. Person Fakename."
Mainstream medical scientists have dismissed the idea as likely to lead to a massive increase in deaths in the older population if it went into effect as any state or national policy. "It's a massacre," Dr. Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist with the Yale School of Public Health told the Washington Post.
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