COVID-19 crushing hospitals with reprieve still weeks away
The beginning of the new week brought a torrent of bad numbers that measure the skyrocketing spike in COVID-19 cases in Oregon.
Oregon's hospitals continue to head toward unknown medical territory as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hit 937 in a report Monday, Aug. 23, 37 more than Sunday. There 253 COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds, up 22 from the day before.
The Oregon Health Authority reported just 7% of adult staffed hospital beds and 8% of adult staffed Intensive Care Unit beds in the state were available.
No intensive care units were available in hospital regions serving Jackson, Josephine, Hood River, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties.
The numbers provide the statistical backdrop to what has become a crisis across the state, especially in southwestern Oregon, where large numbers of unvaccinated residents are swamping hospitals and requiring transfer to other parts of the state.
The death Aug. 18 of a COVID-19 patient at Mercy Health Hospital in Roseburg waiting in an emergency room because all intensive care unit beds were full has made international news as a symbol of the pandemic in the United States and the resistance to vaccination.
Since earlier this summer, the state no longer releases daily figures for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, waiting until Monday for a total on the three days. The report for Aug. 23 showed 4,701 new COVID-19 cases and 24 new deaths. That brought the state total in the pandemic to 257,644. The death total stands at 3,036.
Trends did not bode well for the future, with OHA saying Friday, Aug. 20, that at current rates, the number of new daily cases could top 5,000 by early next month. The Oregon Health & Science University forecast earlier this month showed an ever-steeper rise in cases with hospitalizations peaking around Sept. 11, when epidemiologists see an equally sharp drop— but one that will take until the end of October to return to pre-spike levels last seen in late June.
The OHSU report said the drop would largely be because the virus will run out of unvaccinated people to infect, hitting a wall to its growth. The forecast shows it will take until the end of October to reach the levels of late June before the spike began. A revised forecast is expected in the next few days.
Any relief remains far off, as the exponential rise in Monday's numbers will continue for at least two weeks, with hospitalizations reaching 1,100 per day— far outstripping the state's resources for quality care.
Because of the rapid growth of the delta variant, OHSU scientists say that wearing masks and social distancing are the only way to blunt the spike even slightly. Because the main vaccines used in Oregon— the Moderna and Pfizer two-shot inoculations— it takes about six weeks for the vaccine to reach its full protective strength.
"Being vaccinated now is too late for this surge," Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of the Oregon Health & Science University, said Aug. 9.
The County COVID-19 Community Transmission report on Monday listed 28 out of 36 counties as showing infection rates above 10% over the past week— twice the rate that state officials have said can be controlled by public health measures.
Nine counties had positive test rates above 20%, with the highest in Morrow at 26.9%, followed by Douglas at 25.1%. Others include Jackson, Josephine, Umatilla, Tillamook, Gilliam, Wallowa, and Sherman.
Sparsely populated Lake County was the only one in the state to record under 5%— with a zero count for the week.
The numbers in the weekly County Covid-19 Community Transmission Report were once used by OHA and Gov. Kate Brown to place counties in one of four risk categories with different levels of restrictions on businesses, gatherings and events. When Brown announced the state had come close to meeting the goal of 70% of all eligible adult residents having at least one shot of vaccine, she lifted restrictions across the state. OHA continues to compile the report, but it is not used for any action by the state anymore.
If it were, most of the state would be at the top-most "extreme risk" level.
The statewide numbers continued to climb with 14,539 new cases in the period beginning Aug. 15.
A key measurement of where the pandemic's infection rates is hitting hardest is the number of adjusted per capita cases— how many new cases per 100,000 population.
It allows for a rough comparison between counties of different sizes. There were 340.6 cases per capita statewide.
The other key measure is the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive. The statewide rate is 12.2%, up from 11.8% last week. OHA has targeted a rate of no more than 5% as manageable by public health actions.
The delta spike hit nearly every corner of the state, but there were wide statistical differences in geographical areas.
While the area around Portland had high numbers of total cases, the per capita figures showed Multnomah and Washington counties in the bottom quarter among all counties. Their infection rates were in single digits, below the state average. The numbers are still unsafe by OHA standards, but not as far from the 5% goal.
The per capita ratings showed the epicenter of the delta variant infection growth was in the southwest.
Douglas County reported 1,128.6 cases per capita, up from 813 the week before.
Josephine County's per capital rate was 1,012 per capita, up from 919.6 the week before.
Using the risk level system abandoned on June 30, to have the most extreme restrictions applied, most counties could have no more than 200 cases per 100,000.
Washington (193.8) Benton (172), and Multnomah (159) counties would have been rated at "high risk," the tier just below extreme risk.
Lake (12.4) and Wheeler (0.0) would likely be rated as "lower risk," the safest level.
Measurements for the smallest counties were adjusted to prevent wildly changing per capita rates resulting from the small sample size.
While some counties showed a decrease in cases per capita, they were dropping from high numbers.
In the northwest of the state, Clatsop's per capita rate fell to 375.1, while Tillamook fell to 678.2— though both rates remain well above the level that used to trigger an extreme risk level rating.
The current spike first flared in eastern Oregon in early July, where Umatilla and other counties saw per capita rates balloon. Cases continued to rise in most eastern counties.
An exception was Umatilla, where per capita cases fell from 651.6 to 493.3 and the infection rate went from 24.1% to 21.7%. The OHA report showed the numbers remain dangerously high, but are moving in the right direction for now
Central Oregon is seeing a rising risk level, with Deschutes County's per capita rate rising to 471.0 from 402.0 and its positive test rate up to 13.6% from 12.7%.
Crook County jumped to 469.3 per capita from 294.4 and its positivity rate to 14.4% from 12.3% from 294.4 Jefferson County rose to 390.0 per capita from 348.5 and its positive test rate climbed to 17.0% from 16.2%.
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