Oregon on Friday surpassed 1,000 daily coronavirus cases for the third time this week, with state officials expressing alarm over an unchecked resurgence that new modeling suggests will only get worse in the weeks ahead.
State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger did not mince words during an afternoon press conference, though he promised no new state action to tackle the increasingly urgent situation fueled by the delta variant. He continued promoting mask-wearing and vaccinations.
“I’m extremely concerned about the situation right now,” Sidelinger said. “This virus is very transmissible. You will get sick if you’re exposed to someone with COVID-19 and, if you’re unvaccinated, you may get hospitalized and you may die.”
Oregon’s case numbers this week indicate the state may be well on its way to reaching new state projections of 1,170 new cases a day during the two weeks ending Aug. 17, well above the current average of about 700 daily cases. That potential increase could lead to a huge wave of new hospitalizations, according to the state modeling released Friday.
Health officials reported 1,076 new coronavirus cases Friday and 298 people hospitalized with COVID-19 — just two beds shy of the threshold Gov. Kate Brown used in the past to institute some COVID-19 restrictions. The daily case count and test positivity rate, at 9.3%, marked the highest in several months.
In another alarming development, the state announced that 58 people who attended an outdoor music festival in eastern Oregon have tested positive for COVID-19. The precise circumstances of spread are not yet clear, but before the emergence of the delta variant outdoor transmission was thought to be exceedingly rare. An internal U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the variant is as contagious as chickenpox, according to The Washington Post.
Despite the rising numbers, Oregon’s approach to tackling the surge is substantially different from similar surges in the past. Not only was Sidelinger unable to provide a specific case or hospitalization threshold that would trigger state-issued restrictions, he also couldn’t say if requiring universal masking would save lives.
Oregon required masking in indoor public places for a year, lifting those requirements June 30. Sidelinger’s agency previously estimated mask mandates, social-distancing and limits on gathering sizes saved about 4,000 lives in the first year of the pandemic.
“The requirement in and of itself, even with some fines and other consequences from it, doesn’t change people’s behavior,” Sidelinger said of a mask requirement, which has been restored in places like Nevada and St. Louis County, Missouri. “I need people to face the situation that’s in front of them, to see how quickly this disease is spreading.”
While broad vaccinations are considered the most effective way to stamp out COVID-19, immunizations have slowed to a trickle, particularly in rural, conservative parts of Oregon. And officials are loathe to institute the kinds of restrictions that just a month ago were declared, with much fanfare, to be a thing of the past.
The state this week recommended all Oregonians wear masks in public indoor spaces, in response to rapidly spreading infections that the Oregon Health Authority has attributed to the extremely contagious delta variant. But the state has left it to counties to decide whether to require masks or other measures on their own – something local officials have said they are unlikely to do.
“We know masks can help reduce spread, which is why we are strongly recommending universal indoor mask use,” Brown’s office said in a statement Friday. “Counties, cities, and employers also have the ability to institute their own requirements, and we expect local leaders in areas most impacted by COVID-19 to take action.”
As of Friday, 34 of 36 Oregon counties had reached the federal government’s case thresholds for recommending indoor masking by vaccinated and unvaccinated people. It’s unclear if any counties beyond Multnomah County have issued recommendations for residents to mask up.
Oregonians must start wearing masks now if the state is to avoid a rapid spike in infections, said Peter Graven, an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University School of Public Health who releases weekly models on the pandemic. Ideally, at least 70% of the population would wear masks, which would buy the state time as more people get vaccinated. But his report, released Friday, pegged the most recent rate at only 32%.
Mask recommendations and people’s tendency to react to case spikes could get the state to about 60%, Graven said, while going higher would likely require some form of government direction.
“If it’s state policy, that’ll catch a lot of people,” Graven said, and push those numbers up.
Graven’s model forecasts 565 hospitalizations by mid-September without immediate changes in Oregonians’ behavior, though he said he doesn’t expect numbers to ultimately go quite that high.
“It’s going to be like a forest fire that burns pretty fast,” Graven said. “We’re going to get to herd immunity one way or the other. And doing it through infection is not good.”
Hospitalizations peaked at 584 in November during the fall surge and at 351 in May during the spring surge.
Only 58.3% of Oregon’s population has been immunized, far lower than the 80% to 90% rate many experts believe is necessary to reach herd immunity against the delta variant. Nearly two dozen counties have vaccination rates below 50%, state data show, and those numbers have been increasing at little more than a trickle every day.
Getting vaccination numbers up will be key to safely ending, or at least substantially curbing, the pandemic, Graven said. Wearing masks would help buy time to increase vaccinations, which studies show dramatically reduce the odds of severe COVID-19 or hospitalization.
The state did not forecast what would happen if Oregonians started wearing masks, or if the state mandated them, or if it put social distancing and capacity restrictions back in place.
But the health authority’s model did offer a note of optimism, contingent on Oregonians voluntarily taking steps to curb spread.
“With the additional statewide recommendations in mask wearing and large increases in hospitalizations,” the state wrote, “it is possible people may decide to adapt more protective behaviors and help stop the large increases in hospitalizations.”
— Fedor Zarkhin