Oregon Leaders Warn Of Possible New Restrictions To Battle Sudden Surge In COVID-19 Cases

Gov. Kate Brown Jessica Floum.jpg

Oregon is staring down another COVID-19 surge, and Gov. Kate Brown warned on Friday that the state may reimpose its tightest restrictions on an unspecified number of counties. Under the “extreme risk” category, the state bans indoor dining and gathering in restaurants and bars and sharply curtails other indoor activities.

The state will decide next week based on the latest COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations, Brown said. She was hazy on how many counties may be impacted, saying at one point it could be a dozen, and at another point that it could be “several.”

The measures are intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 before hospitals become overwhelmed, officials said. Oregon officials expect the state to have more than 300 people with COVID-19 in hospitals statewide by early next week. That level is the statewide trigger that determines if counties should be shifted into the extreme risk category in the state’s COVID-19 danger framework. 

The state has endured several virus surges since the onset of the pandemic. This time, it’s different: the state is in the midst of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout that could bring the restrictions to an end this summer if enough people get vaccinated for Oregon to reach herd immunity. Brown said she hopes to “lift most restrictions no later than the end of June,” but that that will depend on vaccination levels.

Variants, like the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom, are a source of what’s driving the spread in cases. The variant spreads more rapidly and can have more dire health effects than the original COVID-19 virus, officials said. The vaccines are highly effective against the variant, the federal government says.

Brown said Oregon ranks second in the nation for most rapid growth of infection spread.  On Friday alone, the state had 1,020 new cases and nine new COVID-19 deaths. 

Usually, counties get a “warning week” to bring case counts down before the state moves them to a more restrictive level. Brown said she’ll cancel the warning week and move counties directly into the extreme risk category if next week’s data review makes that necessary. That means the hard-hit counties would move into that risk level as soon as Friday, April 30.

Counties across the state already qualify for the extreme risk category due to local conditions but haven’t been moved there yet because hospitals statewide haven’t hit the 300-patient trigger. Those counties include Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion, and Polk.

Not every county would qualify for the extreme risk category, because local infection rates and case counts also factor into the risk level they receive.

“We will analyze the data again early next week to see which counties may need to roll back into extreme risk,” Brown said.

Masks, Distancing, Vaccination Are Key, Officials Stress

Brown said she’s looking forward to when the state can move onto a post-pandemic life.

“We can get here by the start of summer, but in order to reach this goal we all need to work together,” Brown said.

Due to the massive vaccination drive, officials are optimistic that any clampdown next week could be the last one of the pandemic.

If the state imposes more restrictions, Brown said, “the good news is that it’s likely to be for a much shorter period of time.”

Currently, anyone 16 and older can sign up for a vaccine through the Moderna and Pfizer manufacturers. The vaccines require two doses spaced several weeks apart. 

Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Science University, said hospitals are seeing an increase in younger people without underlying conditions entering hospitals with COVID-19. As a result of the increase, Portland-area hospitals have started to reevaluate ambulance transport services, patient capacity and reducing elective surgeries to ensure there are enough beds and staff for COVID-19 patients, officials said.

“We are forecasting that we will reach a critical capacity by the beginning of next week,” Edwards said, adding that currently COVID-19 patients are getting treatment and are not being turned away.

Current models show that the next three weeks are crucial to fighting the virus, Edwards said.

“The choices we make in the next three weeks will directly influence how many hospitalizations and deaths we will see,” Edwards said.

But she added, “this time we have the vaccination on our side.”

Oregon’s vaccine rollout made national headlines on Thursday, when state officials announced that an Oregon woman in her fifties died of a rare blood clot after receiving a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The woman was vaccinated shortly before federal and state officials suspended the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because six other women from 18 to 48 years old developed a rare blood clot, one of whom died. Federal officials are now reviewing the issue. More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered nationwide.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the state doesn’t know if there is a link between the vaccination and the condition.

The Johnson & Johnson suspension slowed down the state’s vaccination drive. But Allen said state officials are still on track for 80% of adults to have their first shot by July 4. Currently, 50% of Oregon adults have had at least one shot, he said. Some 26% are fully vaccinated, he said.

A big unknown is how many Oregon adults will decline to get the vaccine, even though now everyone 16 and over is eligible. Already, state officials have noticed demand is high in some counties and lower in other counties. 

Southwest Washington Cases Also Up

In southwest Washington state, health officials have also noticed an upward trend in cases.

Clark County has averaged 80 new cases each day for the last week, public health officials said. That’s an increase from 69 new cases a day the prior week. A month ago, the average daily case count was 43.  As in Oregon, Clark County health officials have noticed more young people getting COVID-19, with the smallest increase now being among people 65 and older, a group that is now more likely to immunized.

About 32% of Clark County residents have received at least one dose and 22% are fully vaccinated.

“As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, the virus will have fewer people to infect and less opportunity to spread in our community,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director, in a statement. “We must continue to take other steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 – wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing and avoid large gatherings – until we can get more people vaccinated.”

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

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