Oregon’s Effort to Get a Million More Residents Boosted Is Flagging

Hospitalizations with COVID-19 are still expected to peak above the record set in September.

As Oregon confronts a record-breaking week of new COVID-19 cases, officials announced the state is failing to keep pace in its key initiative aimed at preventing hospitalizations.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Dec. 17 that the state wanted a million more Oregonians vaccinated by Jan. 31. But nearly halfway to that target date, fewer than a quarter of a million residents have received a booster.

“Unfortunately, due to inclement weather and the holidays, traffic at the high-volume [vaccination] sites has lagged,” Oregon Health Authority epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger told the media Jan. 7.

His concession came the same day OHA issued a “crisis of care” standard for hospitals to help administrators and doctors decide whom they should treat if there are too many patients to care for.

But state officials, who are preparing hospitals to ration care, are not rationing testing as the state faces a shortage of COVID-19 tests expected to last through the coming weeks. “Right now, if you’re sick with symptoms of COVID-19 and you can’t find a test, stay home,” says Sidelinger.

The stakes for testing remain high for high-risk patients who might benefit from the limited COVID-19 treatments—monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medicines—that are still in short supply but must be administered within days of symptom onset.

Gov. Kate Brown has all but ruled out closing businesses or schools to halt the virus’s spread. It’s a striking reversal from a year ago, when the governor kept the state locked down and schools closed to halt the spread—and an about-face that is playing out across the country as Democratic governors make different decisions from a year ago.

This time, of course, vaccines have been made widely available. And the current COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is expected to be more contagious but also more more mild. Nonetheless, a record number of hospitalizations are projected.

The decision by Brown to keep Oregon open hasn’t stopped businesses and schools from closing in the face of staffing shortages. Portland Public Schools announced Jan. 6 that Cleveland and McDaniel high schools will have remote instruction for at least the next week. (PPS officials told reporters Jan. 7 that they did not believe the teacher absences had anything to do with labor organizing or fear of getting infected by the disease, and instead blamed the growing presence of COVID-19 in the community, with absences higher at the end of the week as cases swelled.)

The closure of classrooms drew criticism from Democratic candidate for governor Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read.

“Every time a school closes, kids fall further behind,” says Read. “They learn less and their mental health suffers. And their parents are often forced into the impossible situation of choosing between caring for their child or missing a paycheck. Where is the urgency and leadership from the state?”

Other key developments this week include:

1. There were 10,451 new COVID cases Friday in Oregon, with 2,380 of them in Multnomah County. That’s more than double the record number of daily cases set on Tuesday for the state. Officials say the high case counts in counties with high vaccination rates may reflect easier access to testing in those counties. Oregonians who have better access to medical care are more likely to get vaccinated and more likely to get tests. “The people who are vaccinated and who are concerned about COVID enough to get vaccinated are probably also able to access testing, and so those are the test results that were showing up,” says Dr. Jennifer Vines, tri-county health officer. “I suspect it has to do with help behavior and access to both vaccine and testing.”

2. The number of hospitalizations are projected to peak at 1,651 COVID-19 patients before the end of January, 30% above the Delta variant’s peak in September, according to Peter Graven of Oregon Health & Science University.

3. That number is predicated on the assumption that a large percentage of Oregonians get infected during this wave. “I estimate 70% of Oregon is susceptible to infection,” Graven tells WW. “Ultimately, the surge goes down when most of them have been infected.” That translates into more than a third of Oregonians getting infected in the next month.

3. If you go into an indoor public setting or a crowded outdoor setting, assume you’ve been exposed. A Multnomah County spokeswoman told WW as much earlier in the week. That concept was reiterated Thursday. “People who are going out and about their lives over the next few weeks as Omicron becomes dominant—I think they have to assume that they’re going to encounter the virus in some setting, whether it’s at work or in their social circles or in other activities that they do with any other people,” Vines said Jan. 6.

4. Contact tracing in Multnomah County and surrounding counties has halted, officials announced Jan. 6. Officials argued it would no longer be effective with the faster infection period; instead, county officials have shifted resources to the vaccination effort. (PPS said its contact tracing efforts continue.)

5. Calls to emergency services are up this week. “EMS calls are up, 40% over a usual average volume, and at least one Portland metro emergency department—a large emergency department—was physically out of space at one point yesterday afternoon,” Vines said Jan. 6. “So we’re here today to share some difficult news. We’re also here today to make sure people are informed and that they know how to protect themselves.”