Skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could push state health officials to lock down some regions of the state as soon as April 30, though Coos and Curry counties will likely not yet be impacted.
During a press conference Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she will eliminate a warning period next week, potentially forcing counties which qualify for the extreme-risk level of virus restrictions to close indoor dining and recreation at the end of the week.
The move follows what experts have been calling the “fourth surge,” a statewide increase in COVID-19 cases that’s given the state the country’s second-most rapid spread in infections, according to Brown.
“Unfortunately today, that surge is here. Right now in the race between vaccines and variants, the variants are gaining ground, and are gaining the upper hand,” Brown said.
Brown said she’d be meeting with state leaders in the coming days and could announce a decision to skip the warning week and send some counties back to extreme risk early next week.
The change will be based on data released next week, but 12 counties would have qualified for the extreme-risk level the previous week if the state had more residents hospitalized at the time: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion and Polk.
“If the data indicates it’s necessary in light of this crisis, I am cancelling the warning week, and those counties will move into extreme risk staring next Friday, April 30,” Brown said.
Coos and Curry counties weren't eligible for the extreme-risk category last week, as case rates there have remained relatively low. If statewide hospitalizations continue to climb, however, increased cases in those counties could again trigger the restrictions in several weeks.
Health officials Friday painted a dire picture of the state’s hospitals and expressed significant concerns about how continued increases in cases could overwhelm their facilities.
“I want to be clear that what is pressuring our capacity is not all COVID patients, but the increasing COVID numbers on top of the necessary care that we deliver every day,” said Dr. Renee Edwards, the chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Science University. “Our emergency departments are more than full, and we need your help.”
Edwards said the state’s hospitals have again begun meeting to consider activating surge plans and canceling some elective procedures to free up capacity.
While the median age of virus-hospitalized patients has been decreasing as older generations get vaccinated, Edwards said some hospitals in the state are running “dangerously low” on available ECMO machines, a type of life support.
Edwards said the rise in hospitalizations is pushing the medical community to once again ask residents to heighten their virus precautions to prevent an additional surge.
“We’re truly hopeful that based upon where we are in our vaccination pace, this will be the last such time,” Edwards said.
The doctor offered a projection to make the case for a return to restrictions: Imposing lockdowns could prevent 180 deaths and 450 virus-related hospitalizations over the next three weeks compared to the state’s current rate of virus spread, Edwards said.
The governor Friday also offered Oregonians an important light at the end of the tunnel: A projection that the state could see its economy fully reopened by the end of June.
“I do think, with all of us working together, that we can get to a place where we lift most restrictions and fully reopen our economy no later than the end of June,” Brown said. “That’s the hill on the horizon. We can climb it together. How quickly we get there is up to each and every one of us.”
That reopening could resemble something close to “pre-pandemic life,” the governor said — though simple health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing in some settings could still be necessary.
But getting that point will require a high rate of COVID-19 vaccination across the state, according to Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen.
“We can safely reopen before summer if enough of us get vaccinated to protect ourselves and each other," Allen said. “It’s not enough to hit a target percentage of people who are vaccinated, we can’t leave any community behind.”
The state could get about 80% of adults at least one vaccine dose by the Fourth of July, Allen said — but only if demand for vaccines remains high across the state.
“Today, this relentless, shapeshifting virus is trying to fight its way back and regain control over our lives,” Allen said. “We can stave off this virus and we can keep it from coming back. The best way to put the pandemic behind us is to take this simple, direct action: Get vaccinated.”