The weather is warm, the days are getting longer, and close to half of all adults in Oregon have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But if Oregonians started to believe the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, Gov. Kate Brown's office and the Oregon Health Authority offered a sobering rejoinder Tuesday, April 20.
Oregon's case numbers and hospitalizations have been trending upward for weeks. Brown announced Tuesday that several more Oregon counties, including Washington and Columbia counties, will face tightened restrictions as of this weekend.
"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 in a statement. "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."
Rising risk levels
Washington County, the state's second-most-populous, narrowly escaped being moved from "moderate risk" to "high risk" when Oregon updated its county risk levels two weeks ago. But the most recent two weeks of data, from April 4 to April 17, shows 158.8 cases per 100,000 residents and a 5.5% test positivity rate. That is well within the criteria for "high risk."
In Columbia County, the numbers actually improved over the April 4-17 period, with cases declining from 141 to 127 and test positivity dropping from 9.3% to 6.8%. However, the county would still qualify for an "extreme risk" designation — meaning indoor dining, recreation and entertainment would be shut down and gatherings of people from more than two households discouraged — if not for the fact that Oregon still has fewer than 300 patients in hospital beds statewide who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Counties that meet the criteria for "extreme risk" are being designated as "high risk" counties instead as long as that statewide trigger is not met, Brown's office explained in a statement.
Clackamas and Multnomah counties were already moved to "high risk" two weeks ago, as their case numbers are worse than those in Washington County. Clackamas County would qualify for "extreme risk" if not for the statewide trigger not being met, according to state health data.
In the "high risk" level, indoor capacity at bars and restaurants is limited to 25%, and occupancy for outdoor recreation and entertainment venues — such as Ron Tonkin Field, which will host the Hillsboro Hops and Vancouver Canadians for the minor league baseball season beginning Tuesday, May 4 — is cut to 15%.
Under the state's every-other-week schedule, risk levels won't be updated again until Friday, May 7, so barring a change to Oregon's health and safety regulations, it appears the minor league season will begin with Oregon's two High-A ballparks — Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro and PK Park in Eugene — limited to 15% crowd capacity. (Lane County, where the Eugene Emeralds play, is also moving to "high risk" this week.)
Those limits also affect high school and collegiate sports venues, as well as amphitheaters, outdoor pools and more.
"Moderate risk" counties can have up to 50% capacity inside eateries and 25% at stadiums and other outdoor recreation and entertainment establishments.
The new risk levels take effect Friday, April 23.
As for the statewide trigger, it will be met if Oregon's rising hospitalizations with COVID-19 continue to track with modeling done by Oregon Health & Science University.
OHSU projected last week that the state will have some 330 hospital beds occupied by COVID-19-positive patients by mid-May.
The big picture
For Oregonians weary of the pandemic and the health and safety restrictions that go with it, there is some good news: Nationally, COVID-19 case counts are waning again. In Michigan, which has experienced a particularly dramatic spike in cases and hospitalizations this spring, the data suggests that new infections may have "peaked," or at least reached a "plateau" in which runaway growth is no longer occurring.
Public health experts say there is a growing body of evidence that as more people are vaccinated, viral transmission rates fall, making it more difficult for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, to spread within the population.
Last week, following a recommendation by federal regulators, Oregon "paused" the distribution of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Regulators are investigating a possible link between the vaccine and an extremely rare blood clotting disorder. Half a dozen cases have been identified among nearly 7 million Americans who have received that vaccine.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which were first authorized for emergency use in December and require a second dose for maximum effectiveness, make up by far the largest share of COVID-19 vaccines in Oregon and the United States. Those vaccines are still in use, with regulators expressing confidence in their safety and effectiveness against COVID-19 — including variant strains that have emerged over the past several months.
Oregon just opened vaccination eligibility to all residents age 16 and older on Monday, April 19. The vaccine supply has increased significantly, and Brown has said she is working with the Biden administration to secure enough doses for every Oregonian who wants to be vaccinated.
On Friday, April 16, Brown visited the Nike Inc. campus outside Beaverton to tour a vaccination clinic set up in partnership with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Washington County, and the cities of Beaverton and Tigard.
"It's going to take all of us working together to defeat COVID-19," Brown stated on Twitter.
Nick Budnick contributed to this report.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.