COVID-19's highly contagious delta variant has caused a steep increase in the number of infections in Oregon — but with different impacts across the state.
"Oregon is open, but the pandemic is not over," Oregon Health Director Pat Allen told reporters during a July 22 conference call.
COVID-19 infections by the delta variant have doubled in the past week, leading to a new spike in total numbers. OHA reported the number of delta variant cases had risen 25% between late last week. The delta variant now accounts for more than half of all COVID-19 cases in Oregon and is likely to rise, mirroring the national average of 80%.
The statistics were rolled out at OHA's first high profile press briefing since Gov. Kate Brown ended statewide COVID-19 restrictions June 30. The rise in cases comes as vaccinations in the state have slowed to a trickle. While about 2.4 million residents have received at least one shot of vaccine, Allen said the latest daily number of new inoculations was about 2,000. That's down from a peak of more than 50,000 on some days in early April.
Allen said COVID-19 cases are surging, up tenfold in the past week. The delta variant spreads up to 75% faster than the original COVID-19 virus that first appeared in Oregon in February 2020.
The spread of the virus is not evenly spread throughout Oregon as in earlier spikes, OHA reported. Allen singled out Umatilla County, which reported 70 new cases but has vaccinated just under 43% of eligible adults. The 2020 population of the county is just under 78,000. In contrast, Washington County, near Portland, reported 43 new cases and has vaccinated 75% of eligible adults. It's 2020 population is more than 620,000.
"The pandemic is fading for those that are vaccinated — they can resume activities with relative peace of mind," Allen said.
While significantly more contagious, the delta variant has not been shown to be any more virulent or able to break through vaccines that have been widely available since spring. Infections and hospitalizations are rising, but the number of deaths is expected to be capped well below levels seen last winter when the virus was rampant and no vaccines were available.
Allen said that despite the press call to publicize the extent of the delta variant, there were no plans for Brown or OHA to step in and exert control over local decisions.
While OHA was ready to help with additional vaccine and other supports, it is up to county health departments to take a measure of the local impact of the virus and for county commissioners to decide what should be done.
Salem would not issue edicts, but advice. "Take action now," Allen said of counties with lagging vaccination rates.
Allen pointed to state statistics showing that 15 out of 36 counties had started vaccinating less than half their adult population. Statewide the number is about 70%.
Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and chief epidemiologist, said the jump in infections should be a "red alert" for those who have not been vaccinated. "You are at higher risk now than you were earlier in the pandemic and you are putting the people around you at risk," Sidelinger said.
Not moving to increase vaccination levels would mean the shadow of the pandemic would continue in communities, schools, workplaces and gatherings.
"The virus looms large," Sidelinger said.
'A stubborn foe'
OHA again said it was hoping for increased persuasion and for local influential individuals and political leaders to take action. There were no plans for new mandates, or to tell employers they should require vaccinations.
Citing the "highly political" nature of the COVID-19 debate, Allen said efforts to increase vaccinations had to come from trusted local sources, including civic and faith leaders, as well as political officeholders.
Would the state step in to curb or cancel the state's popular Pendleton Round-Up in September if Umatilla County's infection rates stayed at current levels? Allen demurred. "Two or three months in the future are an eternity" in the pandemic, he said.
Soon after the transfer of responsibility to counties, the governor's office said it would monitor the response.
"Oregon is moving into the next chapter of this pandemic," Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said on July 7. "While our statewide response will now look different, OHA continues to have an ongoing leadership role working with local public health partners in vaccination efforts, as well as pandemic response and recovery."
Boyle said Brown was aware of the already rising impact of the delta variant in other parts of the nation.
"We will continue to monitor the spread of variants closely," Boyle said.
While transferring daily control of the pandemic response to counties, Brown has not lifted the state emergency order that has been in place since March 2020 and renewed several times.
Allen said that getting people to realize the gravity of the pandemic and to make their own choice to get vaccinated was going to work best. "I don't care what you think, you have to get vaccinated" was a message that wouldn't help anyone.
Up until June 30, the state had decided the risk level for infection in each county and what restrictions should be in place. Though Brown officially disconnected the risk analysis from state response, the statistics are still reported each Monday.
Statewide, the percentage of positive cases averaged 3.8% through the two-week period ending July 17. But in Umatilla County, the percentage was 12.4% and Morrow County was 14.4%.
In contrast, Multnomah County was 2%. Lane County was 2.9%. And Deschutes County was 3.4%. But OHA reported even these small percentages were increases over the prior two-week periods going back to June 20.
OHA officials say the prevalence of the delta variant is likely an undercount as sequencing data can take weeks to be reported and not all coronavirus cases are tested for the variant. COVID-19 has killed over 610,000 Americans and 4.1 million people worldwide. Many of the variants have had their origins thousands of miles away from Oregon, but in modern times, can reach anywhere on the globe in a relatively short time.
Sidelinger said the pandemic has had many turning points for bad and good. Thinking that it is defeated would "come at a high cost."
"Our fight is not over," he said. "COVID-19 is a stubborn foe."
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