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New COVID-19 variant, which Oregon has so far avoided, alters state pandemic planning

Tribune illustrationCOVID-19'S new omicron variant raises concerns just as Oregon hit two key markers in its recovery from the deadly delta variant that swept through the state last summer.

New infections have fallen under 100 per 100,000 people statewide, while the positive test rate dropped under 6%, according to the latest County COVID-19 Community Transmission Report, released Monday, Nov. 29. The new lows were part of a four-week trend of falling numbers.

The good news was tempered by growing concerns of the new omicron variant reported late last week by the World Health Organization. No cases have been found in Oregon, though health officials said that experience during the now nearly 2-year-old pandemic shows the situation could swiftly change.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's epidemiologist, said Oregon expected that the omicron variant would be found in the United States soon. On Wednesday, Dec. 1, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said the variant was detected in a man who traveled from South Africa to California.

Sidelinger urged people who had not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible and for those eligible for a booster shot — in Oregon, anyone 18 and older — to schedule an appointment. "The vaccines have remained highly effective against other variants, and we expect the same to be true with omicron," he said. "We should have early answers in the coming weeks."

ocbOriginally found in southern Africa, cases have since been reported over the weekend in Canada, Europe, Australia and Hong Kong. Epidemiologists studying the variant have said its structure has about 50 mutations that have not been seen before. Many are in the spike protein that the virus uses to hook itself more firmly onto healthy cells. That would likely make it more contagious than any previous version of COVID-19.

But other variants have failed to spread in Oregon and other regions of the United States because the delta variant had "crowded out" other variants from reaching unvaccinated people first.

Oregon officials said it was too early to gauge whether having nearly 80% of state residents over 18 vaccinated, combined with those who have been exposed to the delta variant, will be enough to block omicron from spreading across the state. An Oregon Health & Science University forecast, due Thursday, Dec. 2, may include some projections.

After being surprised by the rapid spread of the delta variant, several countries are taking rapid steps to institute travel bans to slow the spread of omicron. The efforts range from Britain barring visitors from some African nations where the omicron variant was first reported to Israel freezing all foreign visits.

County risk levels

According to the state's community transmission report, Deschutes County was the only large county in Oregon with a per capita new case rate of more than 200, and that was just barely, at 201 per 100,000. Though high compared to other parts of the state, the county's mark was a big drop from 288.3 cases per 100,000 in the previous report released Nov. 22.

A number of larger counties showed very low numbers that drove the overall state average lower. A number of the big counties are very low. Multnomah County, which includes Portland, reported 68 cases per 100,000. The state's second most populous county, Washington, reported 77. Lane County, home of the University of Oregon in Eugene, had 80. Benton County, home of Corvallis and the main campus of Oregon State University, had 50.7.

The county risk levels were used until June to decide what level of restrictions to activities and gatherings would be placed on counties due to their measurements of infection and likely continued contagion. A large county above 200 cases per 100,000 would have once been placed in the "extreme" risk level, the most restrictive of four tiers.

Gov. Kate Brown and OHA phased out the risk level system over the spring and ended the ratings completely in late June when the state closed in on a 70% vaccination rate. When the delta variant sent risk levels to new record highs, the state did not reinstate the restrictions, saying it was up to local authorities to make decisions.

Only two other counties had rates over 200 cases per 100,000: Wallowa, with a population under 7,000 people reported 237.4 cases per 100,000. The rate in Baker County, with a population of just over 16,000 people was 218.8. OHA has said per capita figures for smaller counties are less reliable because small changes in actual numbers can cause big swings up and down on the rate. OHA often concentrated on total case counts and positive test percentage in determining risk for less populous areas.

With a small population of just over 7,000 and is proximity to Idaho and Washington, the weekly numbers in Wallowa County have frequently swung rapidly back and forth throughout the pandemic. The past four weekly reports have listed 26, two, four and 17 new cases. That leads to ping-ponging results from extremely low to high.

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