Oregon health officials Friday addressed accelerating COVID-19 case counts across the state, ahead of Monday’s vaccine eligibility expansion to all adults.
The comments from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown came in a press conference with officials from the Oregon Health Authority.
“It’s clear that this virus is persistent and it’s stubborn. While we flatten the curve again and again, COVID will not surrender,” Brown said.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said the state’s pandemic picture is again worsening, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths all on the rise in recent weeks.
Weekly cases have increased by more than 20% for each of the last three weeks, “eclipsing even the most pessimistic scenario in our most recent COVID-19 modelling,” Sidelinger said.
“Recent data are troubling, showing that the virus is on the march throughout our state, sickening our friends and neighbors,” Sidelinger said.
Variants are also spreading rapidly in the state, Sidelinger said, including the faster-spreading UK variant, which now accounts for more than half of virus cases nationwide.
Still, Brown said the increasing cases won’t push the state to establish any new virus restrictions beyond the current four-level framework, saying residents know how to take personal responsibility for wearing masks and limiting gatherings.
The state modified that four-tier system earlier this month, making it harder for counties to enter the extreme-risk category which closes indoor dining and other businesses.
“I think Oregon, throughout the entire pandemic, has gotten it right,” Brown said. “Oregonians have made really smart decisions and tough choices to protect themselves and their neighbors and loved ones.”
Brown did offer one reason for optimism for parents and students across the state: While she didn’t commit to mandating it, she said she expects Oregon’s students to be in classrooms full time in the fall.
“I’ve been really clear, it is my expectation that we will have kids in school five days a week in the fall. Obviously, the virus makes the timeline,” Brown said.
Monday marks the deadline for Oregon schools to bring students back to the classroom for at least part-time in-person instruction. Earlier this month, and Oregonian/OregonLive analysis showed vast differences between how much in-class time schools and districts were offering their students during hybrid learning schedules.
That wasn’t the only disparity health officials addressed Friday.
Brown and OHA Director Patrick Allen also acknowledged the unevenness of the state’s vaccine rollout, with wealthier ZIP codes seeing generally higher rates of vaccination than others.
“This has been a nationwide phenomenon, and part of the challenge is people of means have got more ways to be able to access vaccines than others do,” Allen said. “And that’s a headwind that we’re running into.”
What’s more, the vaccine rollout has been disproportionate along racial and ethnic lines, especially among the state’s Latino population.
OHA faced criticism Thursday from a group of Latino leaders concerned about the state’s lack of effort at vaccinating that population. The group pointed to state statistics showing that, while about 13% of the state’s population is Latino, only about 6% of those vaccinated are.
Allen said Friday the state’s made efforts at outreach to the population specifically through federally qualified health centers, community based organizations and the prioritization of migrant farm workers for vaccines.
But Allen agreed there was more to be done.
“The numbers are stark and clear: For too many people, race and income are predictors of whether you can access a COVID vaccine or not,” Allen said. “As a state, we can and need to do better.”
Allen also said the state’s future vaccine supplies still remain uncertain, as the federal government continues a review of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine it paused Tuesday.
The officials said Friday a continued need for safety precautions like masking, social distancing and vaccinating — even among young people and others at low risk for the virus, who make up a large share of the state’s new virus cases.
“Getting enough people vaccinated to achieve community immunity may take many months, but will happen more quickly, and we can keep the virus from overtaking it, if we remain faithful to the public health interventions,” Sidelinger said.