The director of the Oregon Health Authority, Patrick Allen, told OPB that a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections could cause “up to 1,000 cases a day” within the next month if people do not change their behavior.
The proliferation of infectious variants and the easing of restrictions on companies and social gatherings have already led to an increase in COVID-19 cases locally and nationwide. Now, the number of rising cases has triggered a return to tighter indoor dining capacity limits and restrictions for other businesses and personal gatherings in several of Oregon̵
The state moved six counties into the “high-risk” category on Tuesday, triggering stricter capacity limits for restaurants, bars, gyms, shops and limited private social gatherings for 8 people.
The affected counties include the Multnomah and Clackamas in the Portland metro area as well as the more rural counties of Deschutes (home of Bend), Klamath, Linn and Tillamook, expanding Oregon’s list of “high-risk” counties to 14.
Gov. Kate Brown also announced a major change in the metrics used by the state to determine when to rate “extreme risk” counties, triggering a direct ban on indoor dining, among other restrictions.
This level of risk is triggered only in limited circumstances, indicating that the state may be at risk of falling short of hospital capacity: COVID-19 positive patients occupying 300 hospital beds or more, and a 15% increase in the seven-day average in over the last week.
Three counties, Josephine, Klamath and Tillamook, comply with the state’s case and threshold for positivity to be designated as “extreme risk”, but will instead be considered high risk under the new guidelines.
The governor has described the current situation as a race between vaccination efforts and the spread of more transmissible variants of COVID-19 that have been discovered across the state.
Two states with a large number of cases to be considered “extreme risk” – Josephine and Tillamook – have among the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
Overall, Oregon’s vaccination rates are not yet high enough to stop the spread of COVID-19: only approx. one-third of Oregonians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 19% are fully vaccinated. Across the country, 76% of those aged 65 and over have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 57% are fully vaccinated, but rates vary widely across the state.
Allen warned that seniors in rural Oregon, where vaccination rates are lagging behind, are particularly vulnerable as case counts, test positivity rates and hospitalizations continue to rise.
Grant County has the lowest proportion of vaccinated seniors with only 23.6% fully vaccinated, while the highest is Baker County with 87.7% fully vaccinated seniors, according to the CDC.
Allen fears that rates for seniors will level off at 50% or less in some rural areas.
“I think there are a lot of factors and it’s a little hard to get to the bottom of it. I do not think it’s because of the lack of access to vaccine. I think it’s a lack of concern about the disease in some cases, a perception that many of us have that we are healthy and strong, ”Allen said.
Oregon was among the last states in the nation to open up to vaccination eligibility broadly for people 65 and older, and in many counties, a fragmented, largely online system for registering appointments has been difficult for older adults to navigate.
Allen says that while demand for vaccines still exceeds supply in the Portland metro area, this is no longer the case in parts of rural Oregon, where it takes longer for vaccination agreements to be booked up.
Across the country, the pace of vaccination has increased markedly, which is a factor in the governor’s decision to open vaccine rights to all Oregons 16 and older on April 19 in accordance with a new deadline set by President Joe Biden.
“Our daily average seven days a week closes for 35,000 people. While you still get a traffic jam when you make a new group eligible, we drive faster through these traffic jams, ”said Allen.