As the highly transmissible delta variant sweeps across the nation — fueling an increase in COVID-19 cases — Oregon is no exception.
For at least 11 consecutive weeks COVID-19 cases had been decreasing in Oregon, until last week. Health experts point to the highly contagious delta variant, first detected in India, as a factor as state and federal officials continue to warn about a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
“Cases are increasing and this is certainly due to the increasing percentage of the delta variant in Oregon. This has been seen in communities across the world,” Tim Heider, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said Friday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you are well protected from COVID, including the delta variant. If you are not vaccinated, make a plan to do so, and take precautions like wearing a mask indoors and in outdoor crowded places until you are vaccinated."
Last week the the Oregon Health Authority reported 1,318 new COVID-19 cases — an 11% increase from the previous week. Hospitalizations rose from 66 to 104.
While Oregon’s data shows that the delta variant accounts for only 5% of the state's COVID-19 cases, officials say that is likely an undercount as sequencing data can take weeks to be reported and not all coronavirus cases are tested for the variant.
“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that the delta variant will continue to spread in the weeks to come and this increase will also be seen in Oregon,” read a statement from the state health authority.
The contagious variant has further increased officials' concerns for unvaccinated people.
The outbreak in the U.S. is becoming “a pandemic of the unvaccinated” because nearly all hospital admissions and deaths are among those who hadn’t been immunized, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned on Friday.
In Oregon, more than 70% of Oregon's adults have been fully or partially vaccinated. But in some rural counties there is a significant portion of the population that still has not received a shot.
In Multnomah County — the state's most populous county and home to Portland — 74% of adults are fully or partially vaccinated. In Lake County, in southern Oregon, a mere 36% of adults are partially or fully vaccinated. In 12 out of the state's 36 counties, less than 50% of adults in those counties have been vaccinated.
"It's not a question for unvaccinated people if they're going to get the virus," Dr. Jon Hitzman, a public health officer for Umatilla County — where 42% of adults are fully or partially vaccinated — told The Oregonian/Oregon Live this week. "It's when they're going to get it and how sick they're going to get."
In addition, this week the Oregon Health Authority announced a new goal of 80% of adults of color receiving the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of summer — in an attempt to close the equity gap.
Officials say that the vaccination rates for Hispanic, American Indian and and Black communities are hovering in the mid-40% range.
The possibility of increasing coronavirus cases persisting has some wondering if the state will reimplement restrictions — including mask mandates, capacity limits, county risk levels that dictate restrictions and distancing requirements — that were lifted by Gov. Kate Brown on June 30.
This possibility became a reality for Los Angeles County when officials announced that beginning Saturday night residents will again be required to wear masks in indoor public spaces — regardless of their vaccination status.
As for Oregon, if cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge then “nothing is off the table” when it comes to the possibility of reinstating restrictions, said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger during a public Q&A this week.
“If disease increases significantly in Oregon, or in the United States, and if hospitalizations are increasing — to where we get to a point that people may not have access to the quality care that they deserve — then we will certainly talk about if we need additional measures in place,” Sidelinger said.
Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.