Oregon set to lift more covid-19 restrictions Friday

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gov. Kate Brown, at a May press event, wearing her social distancing mask in public.

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown on Friday painted a dark future for Oregon if the COVID-19 pandemic spirals out of control in the several months it will take to get a vaccine to most in the state.

"Our hardest days still lie ahead," Brown said. "Oregon hospitals are filling up."

Brown said Friday was the worst day of the crisis that hit Oregon 10 months ago.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 30 deaths — the highest one-day total ever. The 2,176 new infections also set a daily record.

The state has now passed 80,000 total cases and 1,000 deaths since February.

Every state except Hawaii and Maine has seen a steep increase in infection in recent weeks.

U.S. deaths topped 3,100 on Thursday, the largest daily toll in the pandemic that has killed 277,958 in the U.S. and 1.5 million around the globe.

Oregon health officials said the current infection rate is 1.25, meaning four infected people spread COVID-19 to five uninfected people.

The rate means new infections would be above 2,000 per day through Christmas Eve, including 75 severe cases requiring hospitalization.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's leading infectious disease expert, said it would be another week to 10 days until the Thanksgiving holiday's full impact on the spread of COVID-19 is known.

But a Thanksgiving spike could push the infection rate to 1.5 — with every two people with COVID-19 infecting three others. 

The higher rate would push new cases to 2,700 per day and severe cases to 110 per day.

Sidelinger said infections will spiral exponentially higher if the public doesn't wear masks, maintain social distancing, meet outdoors and limit the circle of people that meet over the upcoming Christmas holidays.

"We could overtop our hospital capacity," Sidelinger said.

There are 550 severe cases currently in Oregon. Sidelinger declined to forecast the possible impact on hospitals under the forecasts, saying there are too many variables.

 "We've broken records we never thought we would break," Sidelinger said.

Brown and the health officials expressed cautious optimism over news of two vaccines nearing federal approval.

A vaccine from Pfizer could arrive in the state as early as Dec. 15, followed by another developed by Moderna.

Oregon is slated to receive about 267,400 doses by the end of the year. That's enough two-shot vaccinations to start immunizing the state's estimated 30,000 doctors, nurses and health care facility staff working with COVID-19 patients.

Rachel Banks, OHA's public health director, said the first two vaccines had an "almost unheard of" 95% effective rate. Flu vaccines usually are no more than 60% effective.

Banks said a "safe and effective" vaccine would get to Oregonians as fast as safely possible through a "robust, comprehensive and equity focused public distribution plan."

OHA Director Pat Allen said hope should be tempered with reality. It will take time and a major effort to get the vaccine into Oregon and then out to all the state's more than 4.2 million residents.

"It will be several months," he said.

Brown said she was in talks with both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature over a possible special session in coming weeks.

Lawmakers would be asked to bridge the financial and legal gap between the end of much federal funding and a state moratorium on evictions at the end of the year. The $2.2 trillion CARES aid package approved by Congress and signed by President Trump last spring sent $1.4 billion in aid to Oregon.

Despite the continuing spread of the virus and an economy staggered by shut-downs, the White House and Congress have not been able to come-up with a follow-up plan before the current one expires. President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, had said direct aid to Americans and to states was a top priority.

Brown said she knows that Oregon has been strained by the pandemic and is struggling with economic hardships and not seeing family and friends.

"I know it is exhausting and the sacrifices are real," she said. "We just need you to hold on a little bit longer. Hope is on the way."

Priority lists:

Oregon state officials have released a draft COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, but said they are still consulting with medical, civic and cultural groups on the final version.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that initial doses should be given to the nation's 21 million health-care workers and three million residents and staff of nursing homes.

The CDC said state decisions should be distributed in a way that will "promote justice, mitigate health inequities and promote transparency."

Other high priority groups, according to the CDC:

The 100 million Americans with high risk medical conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions, obesity, chronic kidney disease, sickle cell disease and solid organ transplants.

About 87 million "essential workers" involved with food, agriculture, transportation, education, energy, police, firefighters, manufacturing, communications, water and wastewater. 

The National Academy of Medicine was asked by the National Conference of State Legislatures to create a model list of vaccine priorities. Their report listed:

Phase 1a:  High-risk health workers and first responders.

Phase 1b: People with significant comorbid conditions (two or more) and older adults in congregate or overcrowded settings.

Phase 2: K-12 teachers and school staff and child care workers; critical workers in high-risk settings; people with moderate comorbid conditions; residents and staff of homeless shelters or group homes; incarcerated/detained people and staff; and all older adults.

Phase 3: Young adults, children and workers in industries important to the functioning of society.

Phase 4: All other individuals residing in the United States who are interested in receiving the vaccine for personal protection.

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