15 Counties Face Clampdown As COVID-19 Cases Surge 

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Fifteen counties will move on Friday into Oregon’s extreme risk level for COVID-19, facing again the state’s most restrictive public health measures to address the spread of the virus.

The new risk levels for the counties, announced Tuesday by Gov. Kate Brown, come amid rising hospitalizations in the state. Earlier this week Oregon crossed the threshold of more than 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide. That trigger puts counties into the extreme risk level if they also meet local conditions like high case counts and infection rates. The extreme risk ranking prevents people from indoor dining in restaurants and tightens up the capacity at indoor recreational facilities, entertainment venues, and retail outlets.

“If we don’t act now, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and other health care providers in Oregon will be stretched to their limits treating severe cases of COVID-19,” Brown said in a statement. “Today’s announcement will save lives and help stop COVID-19 hospitalizations from spiking even higher. With new COVID-19 variants widespread in so many of our communities, it will take all of us working together to bring this back under control.”

The 15 counties stretch from urban Portland to rural eastern Oregon. Clackamas and Multnomah counties are on the list along with Baker, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Polk and Wasco counties. 

Those counties will stay in the extreme risk category from Friday through at least Thursday, May 6. The state is speeding up when it reevaluates counties and reassigns them to a new risk level if they improve or worsen. The state will reassess counties once a week instead of once every two weeks. The next set of new rankings will take effect on Friday, May 7, part of the state’s push to reopen businesses sooner.

The risk level framework has four levels with different restrictions. Counties will stay in the extreme risk category for up to three weeks, the governor’s office said.

Two-thirds of Oregon’s 36 counties are in the two worst risk levels and another nine counties are in the high risk level.  High risk counties are Benton, Clatsop, Coos, Hood River, Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, Umatilla and Yamhill.

Four counties -- Curry, Tillamook, Douglas and Malheur -- are at moderate risk and eight are at lower risk. The eight counties at lower risk are: Gilliam, Harney, Lake, Morrow, Sherman, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler.

Cases in Oregon have soared more than 50% in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times tracker, making it the state with the fastest growth over the time period. Washington state is next, at just over 30%. Hospitalizations in Oregon have risen nearly 40% in the past two weeks, also put it at the top nationwide, the data show. Washington state is third after Colorado, with a rise of just over 30% in hospitalizations in the past 14 days.

On a local level, the tracker shows that Grant County in Oregon had the second highest per-capita case count in the past two weeks -- just over 110 per 100,000 -- after Caroline County in Virginia, which had 127 cases per 100,000.

In terms of hospitalizations per capita, Oregon ranks 34th nationwide.

Though the number of hospitalized patients is on the rise, with more COVID-19 patients needing treatment, they only account for a fraction of the overall capacity. State data show that COVID-19 cases account for about 12% of intensive care beds that are being used and less than 8% of all hospital beds.

Brown's coincided with an announcement by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors, provided they're not in a crowded situation, or while dining with other vaccinated people outdoors. The new guidance aims to encourage people to get vaccinated. More than 25% of the population in Oregon is fully vaccinated.

Along with announcing the new restrictions, Brown said she is working with lawmakers on a $20 million emergency relief package to help small businesses with commercial rent.

To lessen the economic burden of the county restrictions, Brown said outdoor capacity limits for bars and restaurants will increase from 50 to 100 people in extreme risk counties. Malls and indoor retail establishments can operate only up to 50% capacity. Indoor entertainment venues like theaters, aquariums, and museums can only have up to six people, not counting employees. That restriction can shut down businesses that rely upon a steady stream of people to remain profitable. 

Indoor recreational and fitness facilities are restricted to a maximum of six people, not counting employees, if they are 500 square feet or larger. Smaller facilities can have just one customer at a time. As a result, many gyms will shut down.

The other three categories are high risk, moderate risk and low risk. With each category, restrictions drop down and restaurants and businesses can operate at greater capacity. Restaurants in counties in the high-risk category, for example, can have indoor dining and operate at up to 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is smaller. 

State officials have encouraged Oregonians to get vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

So far, about 40% of the state’s population has had either one or two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The state temporarily halted its use while scientists investigated cases of rare blood clots. It was resumed this week.  Statewide, 27% of the population is fully vaccinated and 13% has not finished the regimen. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.


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