Gov. Kate Brown pleaded Friday with Oregonians to embrace strict COVID-19 prevention measures as it has become clear that cases are once again on the rise, likely fueled by more lackadaisical human behavior and more contagious variants despite the massive vaccination campaign that has been underway for the past 3 ½ months.
“It’s clear that in Oregon and across the country, the fourth surge of this virus is at our doorstep,” Brown said during a live-streamed news conference. “…This is a race between the vaccines and the variants. It’s a critical moment for us all to double down so we can outrun this next wave.”
In the past 10 days, new daily cases reported in Oregon have increased by 42%, double the national rate.
A forecast by Oregon Health & Science University anticipates the number of new daily infections will jump from the current 390 a day to more than 1,000 a day over the next month. Hospitalized patients, too, are expected to double to more than 300 patients, before beginning to decline once again in late May.
“We are in the last few miles of a marathon, we have come so far, run so hard and we are close to the finish line,” Brown said. “Don’t let the vaccines and the sunny spring weather give us a false sense that we’re in the clear because we’re not. This virus has proven it can mutate. Here’s how we win.”
Brown said that includes getting vaccinated, which about 29% of the state’s population had done as of Friday with at least one shot. Oregon has been releasing eligibility in waves, with the governor Friday announcing new categories of people, including anyone 16 or older who is overweight or has smoked cigarettes in the past, getting the green light no later than Monday. The general population will become eligible no later than May 1.
To combat the next surge of COVID-19, Brown also urged people to avoid large social gatherings, wear masks and remain physically distant.
She said she had no plans, however, to tighten metrics she announced last November that currently permit most counties in the state, including the Portland area, to allow restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters to remain open at 50% capacity or up to 100 people indoors. Churches can hold gatherings of up to 50% to 75% indoors or 150 people indoors in most counties.
When asked if she was considering more restrictive measures, Brown said she was instead relying on the continued rollout of the highly effective vaccines and she was asking Oregonians to be cautious on their own, such as by wearing masks that cover their mouths as well as their noses.
“I feel very comfortable in terms of the metrics, where they are right now,” Brown said. “I’m obviously very concerned about the increased spread of the virus throughout Oregon. That’s why we are working hard to get more Oregonians vaccinated, particularly our most vulnerable populations.”
Peter Graven, an OHSU data scientist whose latest predictive model anticipates the fourth surge with cases peaking above 1,000, said his current model predicts cases declining in early May and hospitalizations by late May in part because more people will be vaccinated and in part because the governor’s current metrics will start kicking in as new cases reach higher levels. But the extent of the surge over the next six weeks could be blunted if more restrictive measures were immediately implemented. That’s what happened last fall when the governor shuttered bars, restaurants and gyms in a number of counties.
“This thing turned around on a dime basically,” Graven said. “It was streaking up and it basically halted exactly the day you would have expected.”
But, Graven said, he hasn’t seen a groundswell of support for that. However, “mathematically” tighter restrictions are “extremely effective.”
Oregon has the fourth lowest rate of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, and the fifth lowest rate of deaths. Scientists, however, say the state hasn’t been immune to “COVID fatigue” and to emerging variants, some which are more resistant to vaccines, spread more easily including in children, reduce the effectiveness of some medical treatments, or are more lethal.
State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger announced during Friday’s news conference that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-March categorized B.1.427 and B.1.429 — two variants that first emerged in California and are thought to be 20% more contagious — as ”variants of concern” and Oregon would start reporting their numbers later Friday. He said so far more than 200 of these variants have been identified in Oregon.
Oregon has reported 19 known cases of the the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom. It’s thought to be 50% more transmissible, according to the CDC. One study in March found it to increase the chance of death by 55% in the U.K.
The actual number of variants is thought to be far higher, since Oregon as well as states across the country do little testing for them.
Check back on OregonLive.com later. This story will be updated.
— Aimee Green; email@example.com; @o_aimee