In her most serious and stark tone in weeks, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that she will shut down indoor dining in bars and restaurants in Oregon’s hardest-hit counties as soon as the end of next week if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge.
Brown said despite her best efforts to keep the economy open while holding back on virus-control measures, she will cancel a “warning week” buffer and immediately move what looks like a dozen counties into an “extreme risk” category by next Friday if the number of statewide hospitalized patients reaches 300.
That could possibly include Clackamas County if not others in the metro area. The move would shut down indoor dining, as well as limit large gyms and movie theaters to no more than six patrons and prohibit indoor visits at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Oregon is about to hit that “extreme risk” trigger any day now, with hospitalized patients at 276 Friday. Oregon’s data cutoff for calculating risk metrics and restrictions is typically Saturday – but Brown will review the latest hospitalization data before announcing any restrictions, with an announcement likely next Tuesday.
“We are watching the numbers daily, staying in close communication with our health care partners, and will make any decisions about potential moves back to Extreme Risk taking into account the latest data,” spokesperson Liz Merah said in an email.
Health care providers say their systems are becoming overwhelmed, with talks of cutting back elective medical procedures in order to free up more staff. Oregon Health & Science University is “dangerously low” and close to running out of life-saving lung support equipment, said Dr. Renee Edwards, OHSU’s chief medical officer.
“Over the past few weeks, we are caring for patients with COVID in our ICUs who are sicker, younger and without underlying medical conditions,” Edwards said.
Oregon also is confronted with a daunting statistic: New cases over the past two weeks have been accelerating faster here than in any other state in the country — with a 58% increase in the past two weeks, according to The New York Times’ ranking of states.
As far as new cases, Oregon ranks 21st highest per capita over the past two weeks. That’s much worse than the state’s overall performance since the beginning of the pandemic, with Oregon recording fewer cases per capita than 47 other states.
Brown acknowledged Friday that a fourth surge — predicted weeks ago by data scientists and fueled by more contagious variants — “is here.” New cases, hospitalized patients and test positivity rates have been rising since at least Spring Break in March.
The governor actually loosened restrictions earlier this month and even earlier this week. On April 6, she made it tougher for counties to fall into the extreme risk category, saying she would only do so if hospitalized patients reached 300 statewide and the seven-day average of hospitalizations increased by more than 15% in a week. On Tuesday, she announced that she was allowing the restart of “full-contact indoor sports” — such as basketball, wrestling and water polo — for adults and youth alike.
“The bottom line is this is always a balance of lives and livelihoods,” Brown said Friday. “And businesses and Oregonians need a sense of predictability. That is why I’m saying today, ‘This is essentially your warning. Should cases continue to rise and should we reach capacity in our hospital systems, there will be several counties moving into extreme risk next week.’”
Based on the most recent infection rates, the counties most likely to move into extreme risk as soon as next Friday are: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion and Polk. That’s 11 counties, and Brown had mentioned “at least” 12 counties.
It’s unclear what other county or counties might be deemed extreme risk, but many are close to reaching the threshold, defined as counties with at least 30,000 residents reporting more than 200 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks.
Other counties were approaching the extreme risk category, including Lane with 180 cases per 100,000 residents as of April 17. Multnomah County had 168 cases and Washington County 159 — but those numbers are based on outdated case counts that have only further surged in recent days.
Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen described Oregon’s current status as “red alert.”
Friday, the health authority announced 1,020 new known coronavirus cases, the highest count in more than three months.
The latest forecast by Oregon Health & Science University predicts new known daily cases will peak at more than 1,300 in the first week of May and hospitalized patients will reach about 370 about two weeks later. Another forecast for the state predicts the possibility of more than 1,600 new cases per day before mid-May, but doesn’t predict an overall number of hospitalizations.
The governor said reversing this surge in the very short term hinges on Oregonians exercising safer behavior. In the longer term, it’s getting vaccinated, which with two doses can take up to six weeks to become fully effective.
“This relentless, shape-shifting virus is trying to fight its way back and regain control of our lives,” Allen said. “So many people are understandably tired. … But we can’t give up. …The best way to put the pandemic behind us is to take this simple, direct action: Get vaccinated.”
With that goal in mind, the governor already was talking Friday of her hope about returning to pre-pandemic life before the Fourth of July.
“I do think with all of us working together,” Brown said, “that we can get to a place where we lift most restrictions and fully reopen our economy no later than the end of June.”
— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee