Last week’s rush of developments spurred by the rapid spread of the coronavirus across the Northwest may continue into this week, forcing schools and businesses to make difficult decisions.

Nearly 6,000 Oregonians have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The Oregon Health Authority confirmed 8,672 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the number of people diagnosed with the virus since the start of the pandemic to 513,391.

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Schools one after another last week announced that they had too many absent teachers and students, and too few substitutes, to continue with in-person learning. Now, the remaining in-person schools from Astoria down to Medford are hanging onto the hope that they can keep students on campus.

OHA officials announced Friday they were changing the way they conduct contact tracing in schools: now, they no longer consider a student or staffer to have been exposed to the virus if they are masked when they come in contact with a masked infected person.

The change was “based on accumulated evidence that layered mitigation efforts in K-12 schools have worked well to minimize transmission,” an OHA press release reads. OHA told OPB by email that this evidence comes from two studies, one out of Wisconsin and another from Missouri.

At the same time, OHA officials on Friday said that coronavirus cases are rising sharply among children between the ages of 12 and 17, despite a statewide masking mandate in schools. Case numbers are also up significantly among children four and under. They said the agency is closely monitoring trends in pediatric cases, which made up more than 20% of the state’s overall known caseload the previous week. They also said hospitalizations are increasing in children.

Omicron strains Oregon’s hospital capacity

Hospitals across the Northwest are filling up. They’re struggling to respond to the spike in COVID-19 admissions while medical staff are increasingly calling in sick with their own infections.

In Oregon, just 6% of staffed intensive care unit beds are available, according to OHA data from Friday. In Oregon’s largest hospital region — which includes Multnomah, Washington, Tillamook, Clackamas, Clatsop and Columbia counties — just 5% of ICU beds are available.

The situation is even more grim farther south: For all of Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, there are just two free ICU beds. Same goes for the Jackson and Josephine county region.

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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last week ordered up 700 National Guard members to Oregon hospitals, to join the 500 people she had already deployed the week before. More than 50 hospitals will receive this help.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made a similar announcement last week, when he ordered 100 National guard members to assist with hospitals’ staffing challenges. Inslee called on hospitals to pause non-urgent surgeries and procedures for at least a month.

At the same time, blood donations are running dangerously low. The American Red Cross declared its first-ever national blood crisis on Jan. 11. According to the Red Cross, a decline in blood donations first started with the outbreak of the delta variant of COVID-19. With omicron on its tail, blood drives are being cancelled while donation centers struggle with staffing shortages.

Businesses, public services limit hours or shutter doors

Some businesses, too, are closing their doors to the public as more staff become infected with or exposed to the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Portland area mass transit agency, TriMet, announced that it’s temporarily reducing its bus routes because of a bus driver shortage. And the two Portland-area garbage transfer stations that accept trash hauls from the general public had to stop accepting non-commercial loads. Officials with Metro — the regional government that runs the transfer stations — say their bays are nearly full with mountains of garbage, and they’re running low on haulers who could truck it out to landfills in Eastern Oregon.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s effort to adopt a rule mandating vaccines-or-testing at larger businesses officially died last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court blocked implementation of the Biden administration’s vaccine rule for big businesses. On Thursday evening, officials with Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Division had called off state rulemaking, as well.

People stand in line for up to an hour to get a COVID-19 test at the Oregon Convention Center earlier this month. Getting access to tests has become increasingly challenging.

People stand in line for up to an hour to get a COVID-19 test at the Oregon Convention Center earlier this month. Getting access to tests has become increasingly challenging.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon ramps up testing as home kits run scarce

Oregon officials say they are on track to receive six million at-home COVID-19 test kits, containing 12 million individual tests, by the end of this month. That includes nearly a million test kits expected in the next week.

Still, rapid tests remain difficult to come by. In Southern Oregon, Jackson County officials are telling people who have a low-risk of contracting the coronavirus to save tests for others.

As demand for COVID-19 tests grows, so do testing scams. State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is urging Oregonians to watch for testing sites that seem suspicious, or for vendors that are selling at-home tests for sky-high prices.

The Oregon Department of Justice opened an investigation last week into a company called The Center for Covid Control, which has been accused of operating suspicious COVID-19 test sites. The agency is asking Oregonians to report any dubious testing sites or vendors selling at-home tests at inflated prices to its consumer hotline by calling 877-877-9392 or through its website.

For those who manage to dodge scams and access any at-home COVID-19 tests, state officials are asking people to report those positive results to OHA’s COVID-19 Case Support Hotline by calling 866-917-8881 or through its online survey.

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