Most County COVID-19 Risk Levels Worsen As Cases Rise

Eleven Oregon counties will enter more restricting COVID-19 risk levels starting Friday as the state faces an increase in cases and hospitalizations.

Gov. Kate Brown announced the updated risk levels for all 36 Oregon counties on Tuesday, urging Oregonians to get vaccinated. Every two weeks, the state assigns risk levels to each county based on its COVID-19 infection rates and cases. The four risk levels -- extreme, high, moderate and lower -- determine how much businesses and venues like restaurants and gyms can welcome  more people. Every two weeks, each county’s level will improve, worsen, or stay the same. 

Ten of the 11 counties to regress will go into the higher risk level. That’s just one step away from the extreme level, the state’s most restrictive. The impacted areas include a mix of urban and rural counties: Washington, Yamhill, Baker, Clatsop, Columbia, Crook, Jefferson, Lane, Polk and Wasco. Hood River County regressed from lower risk to moderate risk.

Due to the changes, 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties will be in the high risk category. Ten counties will be in the lower risk category. Three counties will be in the moderate risk category. 

Just two of the state’s 36 counties improved. Curry County is moving from high to moderate risk and Union County qualifies to advance from moderate to lower risk.

Brown also decided to lift a year-old ban on full-contact indoor sports, saying that it's important for the physical and mental health of young athletes in particular. Sports organization will have to follow mask rules, and more guidance will be forthcoming, the state said.

“As we face more contagious variants and increased spread of COVID-19 in our communities, the best way to protect yourself and others is to get vaccinated," Brown said in a statement. "Until you, your family, your friends and your neighbors are fully vaccinated, it's also critical that we all continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance, and stay home when sick.”

The virus has picked up steam since late March with cases topping 500 most days in April and even soaring past 650 on two days. Oregon had 243 patients in hospitals with COVID-19 as of Monday. That was 28 more than Sunday.  Overall, 2,460 Oregonians have died in the pandemic. 

Part of the uptick could be caused by variants which can spread more easily from person to person and lead to more severe illness. Oregon has found nearly 70 positive cases with the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom, state data show. It’s at least 50% more infectious than the original strain in Oregon. Scientists have also detected a few cases of a highly infectious variant that emerged in South Africa -- B.1.351. In comparison, hundreds of cases have been linked to two variants identified in California -- B.1.427 and B.1.429. They’re about 20% more transmissible than the original strain.

It’s difficult to discern the impact they’re having, however. Only a fraction of COVID-19 tests undergo  genome sequencing at Oregon Health & Science University, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon or the state public health lab.

Currently, no counties are in the extreme risk level, which forces restaurants to stop indoor dining. That’s because Oregon has not hit statewide metrics to put counties into extreme risk, including COVID-19 patients in at least 300 hospital beds, and a 15% increase in the seven-day hospitalization average compared to the prior week. 

However, 11 counties have infection rates worse  enough to move into the extreme risk level if the statewide conditions are met. Those counties are: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion, and Polk.

Three counties entered into a two-week cautionary period because they qualified for backward movement in the risk levels. The cautionary period gives counties a two-week grace period to improve. This happens after a county has improved its ranking and then worsens. The cautionary period is intended to give businesses more stability to plan instead of facing constant movement back and forth every two weeks. 

Grant County qualified for high risk but will remain at lower risk. Malheur County qualified for moderate risk but will remain at lower risk. Umatilla County qualified for high risk, but will remain at moderate risk.

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


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