Experts warn contagious variant, slow vaccine rollout leaves many vulnerable to serious illness, death
Regional health officials Tuesday thanked communities for their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Personal choices — to wear masks, keep physical distance and stay close to home — led to fewer cases and fewer people being hospitalized with serious illness.
The drop in case rate below 200 per 100,000 people for 14 consecutive days led Gov. Kate Brown to announce this morning that Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties will move from “Extreme” to “High” risk. The move eases restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
Beginning Friday, Feb. 12, restaurants may allow limited indoor dining, fitness studios and entertainment venues can expand capacity, and long-term care facilities may allow limited indoor visits.
“We can take these incremental steps because people have stepped up and done hard work. Our numbers have been dropping to reflect that,” said Regional Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “And even as we celebrate our successes, and our numbers are heading in the right direction, that trend is fragile.”
In counties considered at “High” risk,” the following activities are allowed, with health protocols in place:
- Indoor dining: restaurants can operate at 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is smaller.
- Outdoor dining: increases to a maximum of 75 people, including individual dining pods.
- Indoor recreation and fitness: increases to 25 percent capacity, or 50 people, whichever is smaller.
- Indoor entertainment: increases to 25 percent capacity or 50 people total, whichever is smaller.
- Outdoor recreation and fitness: increases to a maximum of 75 people.
- Long-term care facilities: can allow indoor and outdoor visitors.
“The Metro region is still in the high-risk category, which means the virus is still circulating widely in our communities. Although we have started vaccinations, the supply is limited and most of our population remains unvaccinated,” said Washington County Health Officer Dr. Christina Baumann,. “Until more people are vaccinated, we must continue to practice safety measures to protect our most vulnerable residents.”
That framework was developed before a more contagious strain of the virus was identified in Oregon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects the UK variant will become the nation’s predominant strain by spring, leading health experts to fear new waves of disease.
The framework was also developed before shipments of vaccine began arriving in Oregon, before the state could predict the slow pace of immunization. As restrictions ease, many of the residents most likely to be hospitalized and to die from the disease—including people 65 and older and people of color—are still waiting for their first dose.
The ability to move toward in-person learning is also contingent on controlling community spread. For all of those reasons, officials are asking residents to continue taking the precautions that have controlled the spread in 2021, to give public health time to get vaccine to those most likely to be hospitalized and die from the virus.
While the Metro counties will shift down to “High Risk” beginning Feb. 12, the state will continue to monitor disease trends and return counties to “Extreme” risk if case counts and test positivity increase.
“Don’t stop now,” said Clackamas County Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present. “What we have been doing — wearing face coverings and keeping our distance, among others — is working. We don’t want to yo-yo back into ‘Extreme Risk,’ which would be unfortunate for the community.