Gov. Kate Brown and top state health officials said Tuesday that the state is on an encouraging path, with COVID-19 cases declining and vaccine boosters becoming available for some of the state’s most vulnerable people. At the same time, the virus continues to pose significant challenges for the state’s health care system, especially in parts of Eastern Oregon.
The spread of the virus appears to again be slowing in Western Oregon, while central and eastern parts of the state, where fewer people have been vaccinated, continue to suffer from the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Hospitals continue to report being overwhelmed by patients and schools are grappling with the challenges of outbreaks and quarantines.
Statewide, hospitalizations have fallen from a peak of over 1,100 on Sept. 1 to 877 today.
The test positivity rate has dropped from 12% to 8.9%, and the state saw a 10 percent decline in new cases last week, the third week in a row of falling cases.
“While we still have a long way to go, it appears things are slowly getting better,” the governor said.
Public health officials warned that the trend of declining cases and hospitalizations is fragile and could change if people shift their behavior.
Under questioning from reporters, health officials acknowledged the stubbornly high case numbers in Eastern Oregon were a particular concern — numbers that could go up following the recent conclusion of the Pendleton Round-Up.
Brown said she’s “gravely concerned” about a spike in COVID-19 cases in Eastern Oregon. As of Tuesday, there were only about a half dozen ICU beds available east of the Cascades.
“We have a really stark choice right now,” Brown said. “A vaccinated workforce that can continue to work through our COVID surges, like the one we’re likely to see from the Pendleton Round-Up or an unvaccinated workforce that’s depleted by quarantines and illness.”
Public health officials also shared information regarding groups in Oregon that are eligible for Pfizer booster shots. It follows the CDC’s decision to amend the emergency use authorization granted to Pfizer to allow the use of a single booster dose for people who received a Pfizer shot at least six months ago.
In line with CDC recommendations, those groups include people age 65 and up, people living in long-term care facilities, some people with certain underlying medical conditions, and people at higher risk of exposure and transmission of the virus due to their occupation.
The occupational groups officially eligible include:
Health care workers
First responders - including firefighters and police
Teachers, school support staff, and daycare workers
Food and agriculture workers
Public transit workers
Grocery store workers
Because Oregon prioritized seniors and education workers in its initial vaccine rollout, people in those groups are more likely to have received their first shot at least six months ago and to qualify for a booster.
Oregon Health Authority Public Health director Rachel Banks said Oregon is relying on the same expansive definition of “health care workers” that it used during the initial vaccine rollout.
Food service and housekeeping staff at hospitals, workers who treat high-risk patients in outpatient substance use treatment programs, those who provide non-emergency medical transportation or work in hospices, and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are all now eligible for a Pfizer booster in Oregon
“Everyone who fit in these original categories and received a Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago, you are eligible today,” Banks said.
OHA estimates that it has roughly doubled 400,000 doses in inventories across the state, or a two- to four-week supply, and that 300,000 people are currently eligible for a Pfizer booster.
OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil contributed to this story.
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.