The Oregon Health Authority’s COVID-19 Weekly Report, released today, shows an increase in daily cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 related deaths.
OHA reported 2,026 new daily cases of COVID-19 during the week of Monday, July 12, through Sunday, July 18. That represents a 54% rise over the previous week and the highest tally in seven weeks.
New COVID-19 related hospitalizations rose to 123, up from 104 the previous week.
There were 29 reported COVID-19 related deaths, up from 15 reported the previous week.
There were 62,098 tests for COVID-19 for the week of July 11 through July 17. The percentage of positive tests was 4.2%, up from 3.4% the previous week.
As of July 20, 2,452,035 Oregonians — 57.5% of the state’s total population — had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Case rates have generally been higher in counties with lower COVID-19 vaccination rates. During the week of July 11–17, case rates in 15 counties exceeded the statewide average of 44.9 cases per 100,000 population. All 15 counties had overall population COVID-19 vaccination rates of lower than 55%, and 13 of them had rates lower than 47%.
Today’s COVID-19 Weekly Outbreak Report shows 21 active COVID-19 outbreaks in senior living communities and congregate living settings, with three or more confirmed cases and one or more COVID-19 related deaths.
Columbia County continues to see rising COVID-19 cases and one new death over the past few weeks.
Across the country, health officials are expressing concern that the rising cases, and the COVID-19 variant, which could lead to new public restrictions.
In the following conversation, The Chronicle talks with Columbia County Public Health Director Michael Paul about the COVID-19 variant and what might lay ahead as the county continues to navigate through the pandemic.
The Chronicle: What is your concern given the continued number of COVID-19 cases in county and the rise across the nation?
Michael Paul: You are correct that we are seeing another increase in new cases, locally, regionally and statewide. The latest Oregon Health Authority COVID-19 Weekly Report, which was released Wednesday, shows an increase in daily cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 related deaths. Specifically, the OHA reported 2,026 new daily cases of COVID-19 during the week of Monday, July 12, through Sunday, July 18, which is a 54% rise over the previous week and the highest tally in seven weeks.
Our immediate concern is for the eligible residents who have not yet taken advantage of the available vaccines; we know this virus is so contagious that small upticks in new cases can lead to uncontainable outbreaks. We still have a little less than half of eligible residents who are not vaccinated, and Oregon had less spread than other states and regions of the country, so there are many susceptible residents out there. And now that the economy is open and mask usage is limited, we hope this news incentivizes those residents who have been waiting, or who have been on the fence about getting vaccinated. At a minimum, I hope that eligible, unvaccinated residents will discuss it with their health care provider or pharmacist. In short, now is the time for unvaccinated individuals to review their questions and concerns with a trusted health care provider.
Our other major concern is the capacity of our hospitals and health care systems. Another wave of hospitalizations is not only a huge staffing and financial challenge for hospitals. It also leads to delays in elective procedures and reduces the availability of routine and non-COVID emergency care. These surges are a major disruption to the delivery of other important health care and social and public health services. Last, we don’t have a hospital in Columbia County so we need to constantly take a regional view when it comes to hospital capacity; we need to heed the warnings of our regional health care leaders who are telling us that they are seeing another increase in cases, and the cases are overwhelmingly unvaccinated individuals.
The Chronicle: Will this mean we need to return to mask wearing and social distancing, even if we are vaccinated?
Paul: Increasing our vaccination rate will prevent a return to mask wearing and social distancing. We continue to make vaccination as accessible as possible, by offering vaccine at events and through employers and pharmacies, and now in many primary care offices. The vaccines will also be available at every school-based health center when school reopens.
Second, the statewide recommendation for unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask and distance is still in place.
Additional measures are a last resort, and I appreciate the deference to local public health authorities in making these decisions, but we don’t live in a vacuum. For one, the percentage of Columbia County residents who are unvaccinated is a small slice of the regional pie of unvaccinated persons. Second, the virus doesn’t pay attention to political boundaries and a very large chunk of our residents travel out of the county for work and services every day, and people are traveling for vacations and family reunions at record numbers. The virus travels with unvaccinated residents so close attention to risk levels beyond the Columbia County border is essential, and quite frankly, our local surveillance efforts don’t include modeling and projecting cases, which are tools to help select policies. Last, we don’t have a hospital in the county so we need to pay close attention to regional recommendations.
If additional measures are necessary, masks and distancing recommendations are certainly the preferred method of controlling outbreaks versus any type of “shutdown” that calls for reduced capacity in businesses or school closures. It would be unfortunate to recommend masks and distancing for vaccinated individuals without evidence that masks on vaccinated persons will reduce the number of new cases, but I think other local authorities may consider the step of recommending masks for all in some settings as opposed to requiring proof of vaccination.
The Chronicle: Why aren't people getting the COVID-19 vaccinations?
Paul: There are a variety of reasons why eligible people are not getting vaccinated. There are some remaining access issues to address to engage those who have been complacent or weary of a mass vaccination site. We have to continue offering convenient and free appointments in a variety of settings.
Second, many people still have questions about the vaccine they need to review with a health care provider. Third, some residents have received false information about the virus and the vaccines. Fourth, there are other consumers who resist vaccination solely because they feel it is an infringement on individual liberties. Firth, distrust of government is another reason. We remind all the community that the virus has caused severe and long-term illness in individuals in all age groups, and we encourage these individuals to have a discussion with their health care provider.
The Chronicle: Is it the variant COVID-19 that is surging and how are those who have been vaccinated protected against the variant?
Paul: According to the CDC, yes, the delta variant is responsible for this new wave of cases. It’s not yet reflected in state’s variant dashboard if it is the delta variant. I don’t have any further information because sequencing is not a locally run program.
The state and national data are showing the vaccines have been effective against variants, including the delta variant. According to the Oregon Health Authority’s Monthly Update on Breakthrough Cases, the majority of vaccine breakthrough infections are asymptomatic, mild or moderate, and infections are much less likely to result in hospitalization or death. Their data show that fewer than 11% of all vaccine breakthrough cases have been hospitalized within two weeks of their positive test results, and fewer than 2% have died.
The Chronicle: Looking ahead, how is Columbia County better prepared following the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with such medical crisis?
Paul: First, we know what to expect and we have vaccines and the capability to administer them on a large scale. Second, we have a stronger workforce and a list of volunteers. Third, we have funding available for supplies and to complete investigations and to respond to outbreaks. Fourth, and most importantly, we have developed close partnerships with local agencies to assist with everything from testing to wraparound services to translation.
The Chronicle will continue to check in with Columbia County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority for updates about the COVID-19 cases, the Delta Variant and the immunization process.
Read more about the Delta Variant here:
Follow this developing story here online and in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.