At least for one week, it's back to tough coronavirus restrictions for Columbia County, as Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday, April 27, that she is placing the county and 14 others into the most severe category for COVID-19.
Effective Friday, April 30, Columbia County will be considered to be an "extreme risk" county for the spread of COVID-19. That means no indoor dining, extreme limits on gym and theater occupancy, and capacity limits of 100 spectators at outdoor venues, among other restrictions.
It's an unfortunate twist of timing, as Columbia County has seen week-over-week improvements in its COVID-19 case count since mid-April, but it hadn't moved to "extreme risk" yet for two reasons: a statewide trigger of at least 300 hospitalizations with COVID-19 hadn't been met until Monday, April 26, and before that, Brown allowed the county to stay at "moderate risk" for two additional weeks because its risk level was just revised downward in late March.
As of the reporting period from April 11 to April 24, the most recent data period on which county risk levels are based, Columbia County would have 204.8 reported cases over the past two weeks if its population were 100,000, according to state data. Over 200 new cases per 100,000 residents places a county in "extreme risk," under Brown and the Oregon Health Authority's rubric.
Neighboring Multnomah County is also moving to "extreme risk," Brown announced. Multnomah County is Oregon's most populous county. Its case count is now worse than Columbia County's at 221.2 per 100,000, as is Clackamas County's at 244.7.
Columbia County's neighbor to the west, Clatsop County, remains at "high risk" with a case count of 137.3 per 100,000. So does Washington County, albeit by a narrower margin that suggests it could move to "extreme risk" at some point in May if the current trend continues. Washington County has a reported 193 cases per 1,000.
The "extreme risk" restrictions are expected to remain in place at least through Thursday, May 6. If Columbia County's case counts continue to improve, its risk level will likely be adjusted downward at that time, relaxing limits on restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses.
No county will remain under "extreme risk" restrictions for longer than three weeks, according to the governor's office.
"My goal is to lift these restrictions as soon as it is safely possible and keep Oregon on the path for lifting most health and safety requirements by the end of June so we can fully reopen our economy," said Brown in a statement, defending the move to "extreme risk" as an effort to save lives and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. "But we will only get there if enough Oregonians get vaccinated."
Oregon is facing this "fourth wave" of cases at a time when the COVID-19 situation seems to be clearing up throughout much of the United States. Public health experts attribute steady or declining case counts in many states to the U.S. vaccination program, which began in the final weeks of the Trump administration and has ramped up considerably under President Joe Biden. The United States leads most other developed countries in vaccinations.
Experts say what happens next largely depends on how many Americans get vaccinated. "Vaccine hesitancy" has many concerned that the United States may struggle to reach effective herd immunity, which depends on a large majority of the population having an effective immune system response to the coronavirus.
Brown received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Scappoose in March, in an effort to reassure Oregonians that the shot is safe.
Oregon and many other states "paused" the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine earlier this month, but it has since been resumed. Health regulators concluded late last week that the benefits outweigh an extremely low risk of rare blood clots that have been observed in a handful of the more than 7 million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson shot.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is based on a different formula than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which require two doses but have not been linked to any serious side effects. Those vaccines use a novel approach, harnessing what is called "messenger RNA" to instruct cells to trigger an immune response that is effective against the coronavirus.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note an increase in outdoor capacity restrictions from 50 to 100, also announced Tuesday, April 27.
By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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