COVID-19 Cases, Deaths Surge As Officials Mull Responses 

The Oregon Health Authority reported 1,575 cases of COVID-19 and nine additional deaths on Tuesday.

That raises the state total to 223,364 cases and 2,872 deaths.

The health authority also said hospitalizations have increased. The number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 across Oregon is now 379, which is 39 more than Monday. There are 119 COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds, which is 17 more than Monday.

At the end of June, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown suspended the state's mask mandate, business and venue capacity limits, and other restrictions, leaving future regulations up to counties and individual properties. Since then, virus cases have soared in Oregon, primarily among people who are not vaccinated, sparking alarm.

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State and local officials are responding to the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19 by urging more people to get vaccinated, considering weekly tests for public employees who are not vaccinated, and imposing some indoor mask requirements while strongly recommending broader ones.

"I'm extremely concerned about the situation right now. This virus is very transmissible. You will get sick if you're exposed to someone with COVID-19 and, if you're unvaccinated, you may get hospitalized and you may die," state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said at the time.

Because of that, Brown now is considering requiring state employees to prove they have been vaccinated or to undergo weekly testing, with limited exceptions. In the meantime she is requiring all state employees and visitors to wear masks in buildings controlled by the executive department, regardless of vaccination status. And she has directed a rule to be prepared requiring everyone to wear masks in K-12 schools during the coming school year.

Portland Public Schools confirmed on Monday it will require masks this fall, in line with state and federal guidance.

"We will require masks for all students and staff as outlined by the governor's direction last week," a district spokesperson said.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler also has said he will ask the City Council to require city employers to prove they have been vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, with limited exceptions. Rob Martineau, president of AFSCME Local 189, is likely to bargain over the requirements. He said its members are divided on the issue. The union represents approximately 1,000 of the city's 7,300 employees.

Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties each have recommended that everyone wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status.

According to Multnomah County public health director Jessica Guernsey, studies showing that universal masking reduces the risk of infection by at least 70% influenced the recommendation.

"We have an opportunity to make a difference in our county's case rates right now. But if we don't act, we can expect an exponential rise in cases, especially in pockets with low vaccinations. This could lead to preventable hospitalizations and even death," Guernsey said last week. "Masking is a step we can all take right now to keep businesses open and move ahead with our plans for the school year. This is the thing that will make a difference."

Outside of K-12 environments, county and state governments have stopped short of requiring masks indoors. At a July 22 press event, Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen pointed to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Oregon counties with low vaccination rates, but said "a localized pandemic demands effective localized public health interventions, not a statewide response."

Allen said the state health authority wants to help county leaders deliver more vaccine doses and ramp up promotion of vaccination events for those who still haven't gotten shots. The OHA is also asking counties to call on residents to wear masks in indoor public places and "encourage people who are unvaccinated to avoid social gatherings."

Rudy Owens a public affairs specialist with OHA, said the state is working with health partners to ramp up vaccines.

"As we work to encourage all Oregonians not yet vaccinated to schedule their vaccinations, particularly in communities of color who have been hardest hit by COVID019, we are working with our local public health partners, community-based organizations, and others who can help encourage all eligible and unvaccinated Oregonians to make a plan and schedule their shots," Owens said.

"COVID-19 cases are rising in Washington County because unvaccinated people — who are not protected from the more contagious delta variant — are becoming infected at higher rates," Washington County's public health office said.

"Virtually all deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. are among unvaccinated people. The best protection against the virus is vaccination, so we urge everyone who has not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible. Infections do occur infrequently in fully vaccinated people, but they tend to be mild."

In Clackamas County, officials posted a brief statement linking to Oregon Health Authority guidance released July 27 in light of the CDC's changing recommendations.

"These updated mask guidances are recommendations and are not required," officials for Clackamas County added.

Cases also are spiking in Yamhill County as well, leading health officials to echo a statewide recommendation that all individuals — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks in indoor, public settings.

"Right now, our vaccines are effective. We need more people vaccinated to prevent opportunities for the virus to mutate in a way that makes the vaccines less effective. With the delta variant, this is more urgent than ever. The highest spread of cases and severe outcomes is happening in places with low vaccination rates," said Yamhill County Health and Human Services director Lindsey Manfrin.

According to health officials, studies have proven the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna, and the and one-shot Johnson & Johnson, vaccines to be safe and effective with minimal instances of serious side effects. While some vaccinated individuals have contracted COVID-19 — referred to as "breakthrough" cases — upward of 90% of serious COVID cases in the nation are among the unvaccinated.

Tribune reporters Jim Redden, Zane Sparling and Courtney Vaughn contributed to this story.

This story was originally published by the Portland Tribune.

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