Oregon on Tuesday reported 1,575 new cases of coronavirus, one of the highest daily case counts reported over the entire COVID-19 pandemic and a deeply worrying number for public health officials due to the resurgence of the virus driven by the contagious delta variant.
Even more worrisome, the number of Oregonians hospitalized with the virus across the state increased by 39 to 379, and there are 119 COVID-19 patients in intensive care beds, 17 more than the previous day. Both numbers are the highest seen since the surge last winter.
And the rising case and hospitalization tallies shows no sign of slowing. The state on Tuesday reported that more than one in 10 coronavirus tests yielded a positive result, one of the highest daily rates of the pandemic at 10.8%.
The state also reported nine new coronavirus deaths, raising the death toll from the pandemic to 2,872. Deaths from the current wave likely won’t begin mounting until later this month or September.
To date, the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown have taken little statewide action to combat the virus’ summer resurgence other than reiterating guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that even fully vaccinated people should wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of “substantial or high transmission.”
Thirty-five of Oregon’s 36 counties fall into that category, which is determined by test positivity rates or the number of cases per 100,000 residents. Instead of issuing new public restrictions, state officials are leaving that decision to individual counties. And while many counties have reiterated the same federal guidance in public communications, none have reimposed mask mandates or required vaccinations to dine indoors or use gyms, unlike jurisdictions in other states that are seeing a similar surge in cases.
The question of reimposing public health restrictions such as mask mandates, limits on restaurant or other business occupancy levels, or even requiring vaccination in some public settings, is politically loaded due to the economic and personal impacts they impose. Brown and other state officials were vilified for earlier lockdowns and restrictions, and are doubtlessly reluctant to bring them back only about a month after the state lifted most public health restrictions.
Some 69.1% of adult Oregonians have received at least one dose of vaccine, the most effective protection against the virus, with 64% having completed the series of one or two doses, according to the Oregon Health Authority. And while the state has established a goal of 80%, it is making very slow progress, administering only about 5,000 doses a day in the past week.
Vaccination rates vary widely across the state. In large urban counties like Washington and Multnomah the rate exceeds 75% of adults having received at least one dose, while 12 rural counties remain below 50%. Only 14 of the state’s 36 counties exceed 60%.
While vaccination rates are lowest in rural counties, the vast majority, in terms of absolute numbers, of those who remain to be vaccinated to hit the state’s 80% goal reside in more populous urban counties. State data also show vaccination rates continue to lag among its Black, Hispanic and Native American/Alaskan population.
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the governor “is incredibly concerned about the increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations we are seeing due to the spread of the Delta variant in areas with low vaccination rates. Severe illness from COVID-19 is now a preventable disease thanks to vaccines.”
He said her office her office is working with health care providers to maintain capacity and recommending universal indoor mask use.
“Counties, cities, and employers also have the ability to institute their own safety measures and requirements, and we expect local leaders in areas most impacted by COVID-19 to take action,” he said. “Nothing in the Governor’s recovery order would prevent a city, county, school district, business or employer from imposing their own health and safety requirements.”
In interviews with the Oregonian/OregonLive this week, meanwhile, County and public health leaders delivered a mixed message. Some are opposed to any more state restrictions and comfortable with the current trajectory, while others express deep reservations about the efficacy of imposing mandates at the local level and the lack of any enforcement mechanism.
On Thursday, the Oregon Health Authority will publish an update on vaccine breakthrough cases, which are cases in which an individual received a positive COVID-19 test result at least 14 days following the completion of any COVID-19 vaccine series. In June, there were 7,241 cases of COVID-19, 92% of which were in people who were not fully vaccinated.
— Ted Sickinger; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger