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Gov. Kate Brown says the county isn't moving to a higher risk category immediately, but it could in two weeks.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Gov. Kate Brown arrives for her vaccine appointment at the OHSU Primary Care Clinic in Scappoose on March 6.The COVID-19 crisis isn't over yet.

Columbia County residents and businesses received a rude reminder of that fact this week, as Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday, April 6, that the county is in danger of heading back into a more stringent designation for COVID-19 community spread.

The announcement comes just two weeks after Columbia County edged down into the "moderate risk" category, which allowed many businesses and venues to open up to 50% capacity — and projected a sense that the coronavirus was on the brink of defeat, with vaccinations ramping up and hospitalizations declining.

That is not yet the case.

"We are at a critical moment in this pandemic as we face more contagious variants of COVID-19 taking hold in our communities," Brown said in a statement. "Now more than ever, it's imperative that we all continue wearing masks, maintain physical distance, stay home when sick, and get the vaccine when it's available to you."

Because Columbia County only moved to moderate risk two weeks ago, it is now considered to be in a "two-week caution period." The county qualifies for an "extreme risk" designation — other than that a new statewide trigger isn't met — and unless current trends reverse themselves, it will likely move into a stricter level in two weeks.

"Beginning this week, for counties to move to (or remain in) Extreme Risk, they must meet the county metrics for case rates and percent positivity, plus a new statewide metric: COVID-19 positive patients occupying 300 hospital beds or more, and a 15% increase in the seven-day average over the past week. Counties that meet the criteria for Extreme Risk but for the statewide trigger will be assigned to High Risk," the governor's office said in its Tuesday announcement.

Three vaccines have been authorized for mass deployment in the United States' battle against COVID-19, which started in January 2020 when the virus, first detected in humans in southern China in late 2019, appeared in the Seattle area.

A fourth vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, could win authorization as soon as this month.

But while the pace of vaccinations has soared in Oregon and nationally since the winter holidays, public health experts have been sounding the alarm for weeks about a premature "return to normalcy."

Unlike some other states, Oregon has kept its mask mandate in place for public spaces and continues to limit capacity in businesses based on a county's assessed risk level. However, some of those restrictions have been loosened — including in schools, which began reopening in Columbia County in February — and case counts have climbed again.

The most recent two weeks of data for Columbia County, from March 21 to April 3, shows a near-tripling in test positivity rate and an even more dramatic increase in the overall case count, from 2.7% positivity and 30 cases in the two-week span from March 7 to March 20 up to 7.8% positivity and 109 cases from March 21 to April 3.

The purpose of the two-week caution period, according to the governor's office, is "to re-focus efforts to drive back down creeping case numbers and give local businesses additional certainty on their plans for operating."

Columbia County wouldn't be the first or the only county to go "backward" in its risk level assessment. Neighboring Clatsop County was rolled back from "lower risk" to moderate two weeks ago. Neighboring Multnomah County, among others, is also moving from moderate to high risk this week.

Capacity limits under the "high risk" designation are about twice as stringent as those in moderate risk, with many businesses limited to 25% occupancy. Under "extreme risk," many businesses must remain closed, and restrictions prohibit indoor dining at restaurants, among other activities.

Changes in risk level announced Tuesday are effective Friday, April 9.

By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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