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Oregon tops 10,000 daily coronavirus cases, prepares for worsening omicron wave


The number of new known COVID-19 infections in Oregon has been breaking records all week – with more than 10,000 cases identified on Friday – as staffing shortages forced a growing number of businesses to shut down and the state’s schools chief held firm to the belief that K-12 schools are the safest place for children and must remain open.

In a somewhat scattershot news conference Friday, state public health and education officials tried to describe a rapidly deteriorating situation and once again put out pleas for the public to take steps to lessen spread by getting boosted, wear well-fitted masks and limit social interactions with people outside their households. State public health officials and Gov. Kate Brown, who was not at the news conference, have said they think appealing to the public to voluntarily change behaviors rather than mandating new COVID-19 safety restrictions will be the most effective path forward.

“Once again, COVID-19 has regrouped and it’s on the march across Oregon,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger Friday. “ … This is not the way any of us wanted to begin the new year.”

Sidelinger described the positive test rate, which reached 23% at one point this week, as “stupefyingly high” and indicative of a testing infrastructure that can’t keep up. Hospitalizations also are up 84% over the past two weeks, with 625 COVID-19 patients Friday.

Sidelinger described measures the state is taking to address “the ominous possibility” that the state’s hospital system will soon be “swamped by another wave of illness.” The latest forecast predicts 1,650 COVID-19 hospitalizations by Jan. 27, about 40% higher than the peak brought on by the delta variant last summer. Among those measures meant to address an unprecedented omicron wave, the state next week will deploy 125 Oregon National guard members to perform non-medical tasks for health care at the state’s hospitals. The number could swell to 500 members as the crisis deepens.

Sidelinger also announced the Oregon Health Authority has developed an interim “crisis care tool,” which provides guidance to health care workers about which patients should receive care first if hospitals become overwhelmed with patients and staff are unable to provide all of them life-saving care.

A significant part of the discussion at Friday’s news conference focused on the immediate future of schools given rapidly increasing numbers of students and staff who’ve become infected or exposed, as well as staff dissatisfied with current working conditions. On Friday, two Portland high schools – McDaniel and Cleveland – canceled classes with a plan to temporarily switch to distance learning next week.

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said more schools will close as omicron continues to present in-person learning with “its greatest obstacles.” But Gill said he thinks most schools can keep classrooms open if they double-down on emphasizing safety measures, including vaccinations and boosters, wearing well-fitted masks and maintaining physical distancing.

But all three measures have proven difficult in the real world, with just 23% of Oregon students ages 5 to 11 vaccinated with two doses, many children struggling to properly wear masks that are often made of cloth and adequate physical distancing impossible in some crowded classrooms and hallways. Questions also remain about whether it’s possible to keep omicron – with its exceptionally high degree of contagiousness – at bay by tightening adherence to these measures.

“We must set our COVID fatigue aside and re-teach, re-establish and re-emphasize all of the layered mitigation protocols that we know work,” Gill said.

Gill said while he believes current safety protocols will be enough to keep students and staff from getting infected at school, the biggest threats to in-person learning are the choices the community makes off school grounds. Gill said the community needs to do its part to keep schools open by wearing masks and getting vaccinated and boosted, when eligible.

“There are things you can do to keep our school doors open for all of our children,” he said.

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Oregon’s two primary strategies for addressing the omicron surge – more vaccinations and increased testing – have so far been falling short.

Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said that the campaign to get 1 million more Oregonians booster shots into the arms of Oregonians from Dec. 17 through the end of January has fallen behind pace, in part due to winter weather and the holidays. But he said the more than 250,000 people who’ve received booster shots in the past three weeks are making a difference.

“Even if we don’t reach our goal, every booster, every vaccination offers someone more protection and helps protect their family and their loved ones,” Sidelinger said.

When asked by a reporter, Sidelinger agreed that COVID-19 tests are tough to get in Oregon as well as many other states. The state ordered 12 million at-home rapid tests just before the new year, but only about 1.1 million were slated to arrive this past week. They will be trucked to targeted community organizations to use how they best see fit. It’ll be “several weeks” before enough arrive to address demand, Sidelinger said.

“Right now, unfortunately, we don’t have the amount of tests we need, so there are some longer lines,” Sidelinger said. “And patience is required.”

— Aimee Green;; @o_aimee



COVID-19 Booster Shots Can Wait

Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 are proving quite safe and highly effective in the prevention of COVID-19, especially severe and/or fatal disease.

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