Oregon News

End of an era: Oregon holds last regular COVID-19 briefing

By GARY A. WARNER
Oregon Capital Bureau

The impact of COVID-19 on Oregon is in a steady decline that makes it possible to end emergency steps in place since soon after the virus arrived in February 2020.

The Oregon Health Authority on Thursday held what officials said would be the last monthly media briefing on the virus.

The briefings are among several public health actions that are being rolled back with President Joe Biden’s ending the national emergency on April 11 and the expiration on May 11 of other pandemic programs and policies.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist, during the briefing. 

Sidelinger said state officials were confident that with increased immunity from vaccinations and earlier exposures, the risk of future significant outbreaks “remains low.”

“But risk is not non-existent,” Sidelinger said. “We anticipate that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever.”

The most likely positive scenario is that it has become endemic, with seasonal cycles much like the flu. Vaccinations will be suggested with the formula each year tweaked based on the latest information on mutations.

While announcing the end of regular media briefings, health authority officials included updates on new actions and forecasts regarding COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that people age 65 and older, along with anyone with a compromised immunity over the age of 6, is eligible for a bivalent booster of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Anyone who is eligible should get it,” Sidelinger said.

Sidelinger said that while just over 78% of Oregonians have had at least one shot of vaccine since the pandemic began, just 22% have been vaccinated and received a booster shot with the updated bivalent formula. All new vaccinations will be only with the updated shot.

The health authority also said the latest forecast by Oregon Health & Science University projected a possible spike in hospitalizations beginning in May and peaking in June. The upturn would be related to the XBB.1.9 and XBB.1.16 omicron variants that are dominating recent infection statistics.

While hospitalizations could top 400 per day according to the OHSU forecast, most patients will not be hospitalized due to the virus, but will test positive for the virus while seeking other medical treatment.  

The OHSU forecast by Dr. Peter Graven, the state’s main analyst at the medical center, said the increase is based on patterns observed in India. 

Sidelinger said forecasting COVID-19 trends had become more difficult in recent months because of the vast differences in vaccination rates, public health and reporting by authorities around the globe.

Earlier in the pandemic, health officials could see waves starting in Asia or Europe, then spreading to the East Coast of the United States.

“We knew it would come to Oregon,” Sidelinger said.

But some recent forecasts of omicron variant waves have not materialized or have had less impact that expected in Oregon. Sidelinger said forecasts are estimates of a range of possible outcomes based on observable trends.

“This isn’t a fortune teller with a crystal ball telling you these things will come true,” Sidelinger said.

Currently, only versions of omicron are being tracked as spreading rapidly. Levels of contagiousness and the ability of the variant to get around vaccines have risen, but the virulence of individual infections hasn’t risen in the United States. 

Sidelinger noted that patients with COVID-19 in Oregon hospitals is under 200 patients per day, far below the peak of 1,178 on sept. 1, 2021 during the delta variant surge.

The end of the pandemic emergencies will bring new challenges as federal support for a larger enrollment in the Oregon Health Plan is pulled back. The full list of changes in Oregon programs as the public health emergency ends can be found at oregon.gov/oha/PHE.

The state is sending letters to those on the Oregon Health Plan to tell them their updated status and how they can apply if necessary to continue coverage. People covered by OHP should make sure that any change of address, phone number and e-mail is on their records with the program. Information on OHP coverage can be found at keepcovered.oregon.gov.

Funding for mass vaccination events and to update the state’s electronic vaccination database will end May 11. The database will remain available, but the public will no longer be able to have their status updated and it won’t register new people. 

The Oregon Health Authority will monitor what Sidelinger called the expected “commercialization” of COVID-19 vaccines and medicines in months ahead that could require medical insurance or individuals to cover the costs of what previously was paid for by government emergency funds.

Noting the end of the briefings, Sidelinger thanked the public, health workers, lawmakers and state officials for making Oregon one of the states with overall lower levels of infection and death during the pandemic.

Oregon has recorded 972,660 confirmed cases and 9,530 deaths since the first reported case in the state at the end of February 2020.

“The death toll could have been much higher,” Sidelinger said.

The CDC reported Thursday that 1.12 million people have died from the virus, while the World Health Organization put the death toll around the globe at just over 6.9 million.

COVID-19 was first reported in Wuhan China at the end of December 2019 and the first infections in the United States were reported in Washington state in late January 2020.

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