Oregon's new COVID-19 risk levels show improving conditions around the state as officials expect to pass the one million shot mark on vaccinations.
"We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel get a little brighter," Gov. Kate Brown said in a Tuesday, March 23, statement.
Counties are assigned one of four risk levels based on the spread of COVID-19 infections: extreme, high, moderate and lower. The higher the level, the more restrictions on activities, businesses and gatherings.
The new risk levels will go into effect Friday, March 26.
Overall, the news was good as none of the state's 10 most populous counties is in the extreme risk category and just three are high. The rest are moderate or lower risk. In January, 27 out of the state's 36 counties were rated as extreme risk, including most of the population centers in Oregon. All three Portland-area counties remained in the moderate risk category.
The three-county Central Oregon area saw Deschutes County's numbers of cases and infection rates continue to drop, just not enough to move it into the the lower risk category. Jefferson County, which up to a month ago had some of the worst infection numbers in the state, improved enough to drop two levels, from high to lower. Crook County saw a slight uptick in numbers, but not enough to move it out of its lower risk rating.
Statewide, 14 counties are in the lower risk level. Jefferson County dropped two levels, while Lane and Baker counties dropped one. Fourteen counties were at moderate risk level, with increases in infection cases and rates pushing Clatsop, Grant and Lincoln up from lower. Columbia and Polk dropped from high.
Six counties are at high risk. Douglas County moved to high after an extended period at the extreme risk level.
Two counties are at extreme risk. Coos County's rising numbers moved it up from high to extreme, where it joined neighboring Curry County.
The Oregon Health Authority sees COVID-19 rates in southwestern Oregon as troublesome. No county that is west of the Cascades and south of the Willamette Valley is at better than high risk and many are in or just exited extreme risk.
During testimony in mid-March before the House Subcommittee on COVID-19, OHA Director Pat Allen said the issue wasn't just vaccine hesitancy, but "vaccine obstinacy." Allen said six months of data from vaccination efforts show demand "varies wildly" around the state.
While vaccination appointments are booked weeks in advance in most areas, southwest Oregon hasn't matched its demand with its supply. Allen said a recent mass vaccination event in Douglas County did not come close to filling its eligible slots for shots.
"It's an indication they are running out of people who are interested in being vaccinated," Allen said.
A new OHA rule will grant a two-week grace period to counties that reduced their risk level in the prior period but rebounded with higher numbers in the next period. Instead of immediately returning to the more restrictive rules, the counties will get a two-week "caution" period to try to get their numbers down again. If they are unsuccessful, then OHA will move the county up at the next risk level adjustment.
This week, the caution period was granted to two counties: Josephine County's cases and infection rate should move it from high risk to extreme risk. Klamath County's worsening infections were enough to move it from moderate risk to high risk. Both counties will retain their current level and will have their status reassessed at the next round.
The next revision of risk levels will be announced April 6 and will go into effect April 9.
Largest counties and risk status
Seven of the 10 largest counties in Oregon are now at moderate or lower risk level. None are in the extreme risk category.
1. Multnomah (pop. 829,560) moderate
2. Washington (pop. 620,080) moderate
3. Clackamas (pop. 426,515) moderate
4. Lane (pop. 381,365) lower
5. Marion (pop. 349,120) high
6. Jackson (pop. 223,240) high
7. Deschutes (pop. 197,015) moderate
8. Linn (pop. 127,320) moderate
9. Douglas (pop. 112,530) high
10. Yamhill (pop. 108,605) lower
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