A Full Reopening Of The State Nears, Says Governor

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In less than a month, the most visible signs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon may vanish. 

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday said masks, capacity limits and social distancing will largely become a thing of the past when the state lifts COVID-19 public health restrictions and fully reopens the economy.

First, Oregon needs to reach a goal: vaccination of at least 70% of all Oregonians 18 and older with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. At that point, Oregon will lift most state restrictions and shift away from its emergency COVID-19 response effort and into pandemic recovery. It will also focus more on providing local public health agencies and health care providers with resources, such as vaccine supplies, for the long slog of vaccinating more Oregonians. That work will continue after the 70% threshold is reached, especially as some rural counties still have vaccination rates below 40%.

As of Thursday, 66.2% of Oregonians 18 and older are vaccinated with at least one shot. That’s about 2.2 million people. Another 127,000 still need to receive a first dose before Oregon can reach 70%. At the current slowing pace, that will likely be toward the end of the month, the state said.

“I want to be very clear that we are able to reopen like this because of the efficacy of the vaccines,” Brown said in a press conference. “For those of you who are vaccinated, you’ve helped us reach this point -- and you are protected from this virus. However, there are still Oregonians who need to take extra precautions to feel and stay safe. People battling cancer,

immunocompromised Oregonians, and organ donors to name a few. There are also many Oregon kids who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.”

Brown and public health officials say the situation has turned into a “tale of two pandemics” -- one with vaccinated people who rarely get COVID-19 and another with unvaccinated people who face risk and are hospitalized and die from the virus. 

“If you are vaccinated, then you’re safe,” Brown said. “You can carry on safely without wearing a mask and social distancing. If you are not vaccinated, this virus still poses a very real threat.”

State modeling suggests Oregon may hit its 70% goal by June 21. But officials stop short of guaranteeing that will happen by then.
“I would not characterize this as a slam dunk,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

Reopening Steps

Officials will take several steps once Oregon hits the 70% threshold. 

The state will remove the risk-level framework, which imposes county-specific restrictions including capacity limits at restaurants, bars, retail outlets and entertainment venues. With the risk-level framework gone, there will no longer be requirements to wear a mask, social distance or practice capacity limits in most public places. 

“By and large this means we will be able to return to the activities and traditions we have missed for more than a year,” Brown said.

Brown has tried to boost local participation in vaccination drives by promising to place counties in the lowest risk category -- with the fewest restrictions -- when they hit a 65% vaccination rate. So far, just six of Oregon’s 36 counties have reached that rate, though more could qualify as the vaccination push continues into June. The state evaluates counties each week for potential movement within the risk framework.

State officials expect they will keep some mask requirements based on federal guidance, such as in airports, on public transportation and in health care settings. 

With the looming change, vaccinated and unvaccinated people statewide will be able to enter businesses and other public places without a mask or social distancing. 

This means the state will eliminate the current temporary rule that lets people enter businesses and restaurants without a mask if they show documentation that proves they are fully vaccinated with both doses. The state has given businesses the option to allow customers to enter without a mask if they show vaccination records. But businesses can still require masks if they don’t want to check vaccination records for any reason, such as a lack of resources.

Once the 70% threshold is passed, state public health officials will still recommend that unvaccinated people and others with vulnerable conditions still wear masks and practice social distancing to stay safe.

The state also has turned to incentives for individuals and the health care industry to bolster vaccination rates. Brown previously announced a $1 million lottery drawing that takes place June 28 for all Oregonians to get a jab. 

Brown hinted more awards may be ahead and that the state is working on a “few surprises.” She said there’s been a slight uptick in some rural areas since the lottery award was announced. Other prizes include a $10,000 lottery prize for one Oregonian in each county and scholarships.

The state’s also weighing a financial incentive for Medicaid insurers if they manage to increase the vaccination rates of their members. That plan, still being drafted, could provide nearly $100 million to coordinated care organizations if they hit certain targets.

Local Officials Have Key Role

During the shift to reopening, the Oregon Health Authority will morph into playing more of an advisory role, as it works with local public health agencies and health care providers that are vaccinating people.

As part of that, the state will put COVID-19 outbreak management largely in the hands of local officials. Allen said local health boards and departments will manage outbreaks of the disease, as they have done for years with other diseases.

Vaccinations and declining COVID-19 cases are clearly linked. County-level cases are higher in counties with low vaccination rates, like Crook, Klamath and Harney counties. More than 90% of COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent weeks involve people who are not fully vaccinated. 

“It’s clear that people who are getting covid-19 are people who haven’t had a shot,” Allen said.

Vaccination work will continue even after Oregon reaches its 70% goal. 

That’s not nearly enough to reach herd immunity, the level when enough people are immunized to effectively halt the virus almost entirely. 

“It means we have more hard work in front of us to vaccinate the next 10 percent and more,” Brown said.

That level is about 80%, although experts aren’t entirely sure because COVID-19 is relatively new. The other challenge is that herd immunity applies to the entire population, not just adults in the state’s goal.

There’s currently only one approved vaccine for children 12-15 years old and development continues for vaccines for younger children.

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

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