Editor's Note: After this story went to print, Gov. Kate Brown announced county's that would normally move to the extreme risk category would get a two-week reprieve before moving back to the most-restrictive tier in the state.
COVID-19 case rates across the state are declining — but not in Curry County.
According to state data released Tuesday, Curry County could be forced back into the extreme-risk category as soon as next week if current trends continue. That would require restaurants and recreational facilities to close their indoor operations for at least two weeks.
“Businesses can’t take much more. Especially our restaurants. We’ve already lost some,” said Court Boice, chair of the board of county commissioners, in a phone call Tuesday. “That’s my biggest concern.”
Fortunately, Tuesday’s data was only advisory, meaning it doesn’t change the county’s risk level right away. The next risk level change will take place March 12, after new data are announced March 9.
To avoid a higher level of restrictions, the county will need to see significant declines in COVID-19 spread. Boice said reducing that spread will be critical in making sure restaurants can remain open.
“We’re going to get into spring here pretty soon, we’re going to have people visiting,” Boice said. “We’re in the hospitality business. We’ve got some incredible, incredible people that provide that.”
Both metrics the state uses to determine risk levels were in the “extreme” category last week. Curry County reported 61 cases of the virus between Feb. 14 and 27.
What’s more, 10.4% of virus tests in the same timeframe came back positive — the highest rate in the state.
In order to remain in the current moderate-risk category of restrictions, the county will have to reduce that positivity rate to below 8% and report fewer than 45 new cases of the virus for the period between Feb. 21 and March 6.
According to Sherrié Ward, the county’s public health administrator, Curry County Public Health received notification of 19 new virus cases between Feb. 23 and March 1. Six are from south county, one is from north county and 12 are from central county, according to Ward.
Central Curry County has reported significant spikes in COVID-19 cases over the past several weeks. According to state data, cases in the 97444 ZIP code more than doubled in February, while cases in other areas of the county increased at slower rates.
Reducing the spread requires the effort of the whole community washing hands and staying home when sick, according to Boice. Wearing a face mask important, too, he said.
“My outlook on that is it’s really such a small thing to ask of our people, let’s have the debate after all this,” Boice said.
But beyond helping slow the spread to keep them open, Boice said community members can support restaurants and businesses at risk with patronage and patience.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do over and over again,” Boice said. “If they’ve done their part, everybody can do their part.”
While increasing, vaccinations still lag behind state timeline
Last week, the Oregon Health Authority announced an ambitious timeline for administering the next phases of vaccines, with projections to have 75% of seniors vaccinated by March 29, with a range of frontline workers and medically vulnerable individuals becoming eligible for the vaccine at that date.
Curry Health Network CEO Ginny Williams says that could be a tough benchmark to meet.
“The truth is we have more demand than we have vaccine,” Williams said.
The county will need a significant increase in doses delivered by the state and federal government to achieve that, according to Williams.
She said the county is now receiving about 700 a week, and the health network is distributing around 400 a week, with the rest going to other clinics, pharmacies and federally qualified health centers in the county.
As it stands now, local leaders are struggling to meet the state’s eligibility timeline: Seniors over 65 became eligible for vaccine doses March 1, the fourth successive week state leaders have expanded vaccine eligibility.
“We’re following the state guidelines for eligibility,” Williams said. “The fact still remains we don’t have doses to vaccinate everybody who’s eligible.”
While eligibility has been expanding, allocations of vaccine doses to the county haven’t kept pace. Williams said over 6,000 seniors were already signed up on CHN’s vaccine interest form a few weeks ago.
“I imagine it’s gone up exponentially,” Williams said.
Those sign-ups represent only seniors over 65, not health care workers, educators or others who are already eligible for the vaccine. As of Tuesday, just over 3,000 people in the county had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
That interest form is the only way to get in line for a shot from CHN — though some pharmacies and other providers are beginning to receive doses for administration. CHN’s form for those over 65 is available online at www.curryhealthnetwork.com/education.
“If you’ve got your name on our waiting list, we will be in touch with you when you have your dose,” Williams said.
Still, Williams is optimistic that the FDA’s authorization of a third vaccine, produced by Johnson & Johnson, will have the potential to vastly expand the county’s vaccine supply in future weeks.
“Once the J&J hits the market, I really feel confident it’ll be a gamechanger,” she said.
That vaccine, while it has a lower efficacy rate than the Moderna and Pfizer shots, has been shown in clinical trials to be just as effective against severe cases of COVID-19.
Critically, it’s also easier to use: It only takes one dose to be effective, and doesn’t need to be stored at super-cool temperatures, making it more accessible for rural communities and populations that might not be able to return for a second dose.
According to the OHA, Oregon is on track to receive 34,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.
“Having access to a third highly effective COVID-19 vaccine is a game changing development for Oregonians,’ Dr. Paul Cieslak, OHA’s medical director for communicable diseases and immunization, said Monday. “We believe this vaccine is effective against the virus, and a one-dose regimen will allow us to vaccinate more Oregonians more quickly.”