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Oregon Health Authority: Fewer masks, more cases

Oregon Health & Science University nurse practitioner Shelby Freed pulls a COVID-19 test swab from its sleeve at a drive-up station in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.
Bradley W. Parks

The state health agency held its first COVID briefing since early March, in the wake of a federal court ruling rescinding mask requirements on planes, trains and buses.

In their first public briefing about the COVID-19 pandemic in more than a month, officials at the Oregon Health Authority acknowledged what the public has seen in state reports for the last few weeks: Case numbers are going up. Oregon has seen case numbers go up from a low of 200 or 300 cases on a single day to about 600 daily cases, according to official state numbers.

Watch the recording: Oregon Health Authority COVID-19 press briefing

But officials struck a reassuring tone, saying the key indicators that are of highest concern — hospitalizations and deaths — are not going up. Deputy state health officer Tom Jeanne said the rise in cases is consistent with models and expectations, and a result of not just the arrival of the new BA.2 subvariant of omicron, but also due to recent changes in people’s behavior.

“It’s been a little more than four weeks since the lifting of mask use in most settings, and some of the jump we’re seeing in case counts is likely tied to less mask use, and more Oregonians gathering indoors and returning to pre-pandemic social activities,” Jeanne said.

With the federal government eliminating mask requirements this week on public transportation. including on airplanes, buses and trains, state health officials anticipate a further rise in COVID-19 case counts. But Jeanne wasn’t sure how much of a factor that policy change would be.

“It’s hard to say, this is in the context of everything else that’s changing,” Jeanne said, noting the change in seasons and evolution of social behavior.

“What we know is that cases are already going up in Oregon, they’re going up around the country right now.”

Health officials have emphasized in recent weeks that what’s more important than rising COVID-19 case numbers is the rate of hospitalizations. Jeanne noted there are far fewer people in the hospital either with COVID or directly because of it than in earlier stages of the pandemic. This month, the hospitalization average has been fewer than 100 patients, down from a high of more than 10 times that high during previous surges. However, Jeanne acknowledged that hospitalizations tend to be a lagging indicator.

“We’re also going to see an impact on our hospitalizations, eventually here, and deaths, as those cases go up,” Jeanne said. “But the projections look like any peak we’re going to see in the near future here is going to be quite a bit lower than our large peaks last year and this past winter.”

The general message from health officials didn’t change much at the Wednesday briefing, with a focus on getting vaccinated, or a booster shot if possible. Officials noted the frequency of breakthrough cases, and the strong possibility of getting the virus even for people who’ve been vaccinated. But they reiterated that vaccines and boosters are also highly effective at limiting the severity of disease — and keeping people out of the hospital.

OHA acknowledged that its data picture continues to be incomplete. It’s possibly even less complete than it’s been at previous stages of the pandemic, as more people test themselves for COVID-19 without reporting positive results to local public health authorities.

“The proportion of cases reported to public health also has likely declined with more home tests available,” Jeanne said.

State health officials said Oregon’s undercount could mean the public is only learning of roughly one-tenth of COVID-19 in the community. At the same time, public health officials noted that an “undercount” of cases has been a challenge since the start of the pandemic, with symptomatic people not getting tested.

Many people who get COVID-19, especially if they’ve been vaccinated and are at low risk for severe infection, can recover from the disease at home without specialized medications for COVID-19. But public health physician Paul Cieslak said that there is a treatment available in Oregon that’s considered 89% effective at preventing severe disease: paxlovid. He noted that it’s intended for people at the highest risk for severe illness.

“This is the sort of thing where you need a diagnosis and the medication that requires a prescription,” Cieslak said. “It should be one-stop shopping for people who think they have COVID-19 and are at risk for severe disease.”

OHA said the Wednesday briefing is the first of monthly updates it will provide on the pandemic, going forward.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Rob Manning is a news editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting, with oversight of reporters covering education, healthcare and business. Rob became an editor in 2019, following about 15 years covering schools and universities in Oregon and southwest Washington as OPB’s education reporter.