/COVID-19 cases expected to soar above 1,200 per day: Governor won’t tighten safety measures because Oregonians know ‘right thing’ to do – oregonlive.com

COVID-19 cases expected to soar above 1,200 per day: Governor won’t tighten safety measures because Oregonians know ‘right thing’ to do – oregonlive.com

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday acknowledged the alarming rise of COVID-19 in Oregon — which one new forecast predicts will exceed more than 1,200 new cases per day and 300 actively hospitalized patients in the next several weeks.

During a live-streamed news conference, Brown said she is sticking by her decision earlier this month to loosen restrictions prohibiting indoor dining at bars and restaurants in counties with the highest COVID-19 rates because she wants to avoid a repeat from this past winter when such measures effectively “closed the economy down.”

“As always, this is a balancing (act),” she said.

Further bolstering her resolve: Brown noted about 23% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated and she has faith in the state’s residents to act safely.

“Oregonians at this point,” she said, “know how to take personal responsibility to wear masks, to socially distance, to do the right thing to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

A forecast released by Oregon Health & Science University on Friday, however, takes into consideration current behaviors of the state’s residents and still predicts the average number of new known COVID-19 cases will more than double from almost 600 today to 1,210 by May 4, less than three weeks from now.

The forecast also anticipates the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients will jump by 66%, from 199 Friday to about 330 by mid-May. Surpassing 300 hospitalizations would be among the triggers for potential bans on indoor dining and drinking in Oregon’s hardest-hit counties.

The forecast, done by OHSU data scientist Peter Graven, can be viewed here.

Overall, Oregon has performed exceptionally well at limiting infections — ranking third lowest among states in the per capita number of known cases since the beginning of the pandemic. But recently it has done remarkably worse — ranking 26th lowest in new cases in the past week. The average number of new daily cases have more than doubled in the past four weeks.

On top of that, the Oregon Health Authority reported this week for the first time that it had detected the B.1.351 variant, originally identified in South Africa, within Oregon’s borders. Officials announced a total of eight cases of B.1.351, which is thought to be more contagious and more successful at evading the effectiveness of current vaccines. Other coronavirus strains such as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant also jumped in numbers.

OHSU’s forecast takes into account the role of the variants and virus-spreading behaviors, such as more time that residents are spending indoors with others and in restaurants in recent weeks. The forecast also accounts for the effect the pause on Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccinations is having on the state’s coronavirus rates and the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

“It could go up 20 beds a day,” Graven said, noting the jump between Monday and Tuesday this week. “So that cushion can go away.”

Although Graven’s model doesn’t predict the number of anticipated deaths, experts widely believe there will be fewer of them in Oregon and across the nation. That’s because so many older people, who are more susceptible to harm from the coronavirus, have been vaccinated and it’s now largely younger, unvaccinated people who are being hospitalized. But aside from death, which is a possibility, younger people still do face the risk of long-term negative health effects.

The numbers of new cases and hospitalizations are projected to start dropping off after the first week of May and remain low, under OHSU’s model. Graven said he might have to adjust the numbers, however, if the rise of new variants causes more vaccinated people to become ill. That’s known as “vaccine escape.”

In early December, the governor began enforcing county-by-county restrictions based on the level of infections. The county designations had ranged from “low risk” with very few limitations on personal activities and commerce to “extreme risk” with indoor dining in restaurants and bars shut down and indoor activities in gyms prohibited, although she later changed the restriction to allow six members in larger gyms at a time.

On April 6, Brown announced she was loosening those restrictions. For example, a ban on indoor dining in any given county will only be associated with the county’s level of infections if the statewide number of hospital beds filled by COVID-19 patients reaches or surpasses 300 and has increased by an average of at least 15% in the previous week.

Because OHSU’s forecast anticipates hospitalizations will rapidly increase to more than 300 within the next four weeks, Graven expects tougher public safety measures to come. And that ultimately will help beat back cases.

“It is reflecting kind of our historical policy sentiment,” Graven said, “that generally when it starts getting worse we usually respond … in some number of weeks.”

Also at Friday’s news conference, Brown addressed vast discrepancies among the percentage of people vaccinated in high-income, mostly white ZIP codes, like in Lake Oswego, and poorer, more racially diverse neighborhoods, like in Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood. The difference was 58% to 22%. The Oregonian/OregonLive documented the disparities in a story Friday.

“These kinds of inequities — whether they’re income-based or race-based — are absolutely unacceptable,” Brown said. “And we collectively have to do everything in our power to eradicate them.”

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said part of the disparities are fueled by wealthier people who really wanted to get vaccinated immediately, even though appointments were all booked nearby, having the time and transportation to drive hours to other parts of Oregon where vaccination appointments were available.

Brown also said the state needs to do more to increase the disproportionately low percentage of Latinos inoculated so far. Latinos make up more than 13% of the population but have received about 6% of vaccinations. Brown said she has asked the Biden Administration for vans and vaccinators who can drive throughout Oregon to offer vaccines to hard-to-reach communities.

“Can we do more?” Brown asked. “Absolutely.”

— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee