Oregon is recovering from at least 745,723 cases and 7,568 deaths after just over two years of facing COVID-19. The rhythm of this onslaught has been inconsistent, quickening with the emergence of new variants and slowing again after.
Similarly, guidance from officials about how to behave has varied over the years. Emergency ordinances, strict protocols, capacity limits, mask mandates and spacing requirements fell away, leaving in place gentler recommendations and suggestions. And now, even that guidance can vary, leaving some wondering if we’re still in a pandemic.
Despite the relaxed behavior, experts say yes.
“We're still in a pandemic,” said Dr. Bob Pelz, infectious disease specialist at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield. “It’s as much of a pandemic as it ever has been.”
Cases are up across the state, more than doubling over the past four weeks from a rolling seven-day average of 600 to 1,437 cases as of Tuesday. The number of cases reported are an undercount, he said.
Last month, state officials announced that cases are likely five or 10 times higher than reported, if not even more, because of the wide availability and use of at-home tests. Unlike PCR tests, people can get their result and unless they manually report it, health authorities have no way of knowing.
While hospitalizations aren't near the previous peaks, they are getting worse — 281 people were hospitalized for the virus statewide as of Wednesday. PeaceHealth Riverbend may soon have to open a COVID unit again, Pelz said. Nationwide, the numbers are trending up as well, but the number of people who need to be hospitalized remains low, relative to the number of people getting sick.
The theory, Pelz said, is that enough people are either immunized or previously infected so the severity of the variants currently circulating is lessened.
“There's enough immunity in the population to keep people from at least dying from COVID but not enough to keep us from not getting COVID,” Pelz said. “Plenty of people are still getting sick, but the hospital numbers are relatively low.”
That being said, omicron infections provide very little immunity against other variations of the virus, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. So, experts continue to stress the importance of vaccines and boosters.
On Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority reported 1,953 new cases of the virus and a seven-day average of 1,437 cases.
Tracking cases specific to Lane County is a challenge. Earlier in the month, officials announced that they would switch from daily updates to weekly updates. But, as of Friday morning, days after the switch was set to launch, no new COVID-19 data was available on the county's website.
So, what are considered pro-heath behaviors at this point? What about masks?
The state should make it through this wave, which is expected to peak June 10, without reimposing mandates such as mask wearing or distancing, state health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said at a news conference Wednesday.
Most recent OHA guidance:Officials say mask mandate unlikely
The peak is predicted to be less than a third of what the state saw in January, Dr. Paul Cieslak, one of OHA's senior health advisers, said in an interview with The Register-Guard.
State officials are encouraging people to assess their own risks and those of their families when deciding whether to wear masks or avoid crowds.
“I would characterize viral transmission right now as rampant,” Cieslak said. “If you're in a gathering of people outside your home, sooner or later you can expect to be exposed to the virus. So those (vulnerable) people either need to assiduously avoid those gatherings or they need to wear the best kind of mask that they can get.”
He said the best masks to use are still N-95 or KN-95. Surgical masks are the next best option.
Pelz, with PeaceHealth, said he still wears a mask when he goes to the grocery store.
“I'm not afraid that I'm going to get COVID and die from it like everybody was two years ago, but I know plenty of people that have had COVID, and it's miserable,” Pelz said. “We know the masks work to prevent me from infecting somebody and them from infecting me. So, there's just not that much of a downside to wearing a mask.”
He added that wearing a mask in situations where you can is just “common sense.”
Earlier this month, Multnomah County Public Health issued a recommendation that residents resume masking indoors until case counts and hospitalizations go back down.
While a court order ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's mask requirements on public transportation last month, the CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.
Two years into this new reality, behaviors needed for a healthy life extend beyond COVID-19 protection, Lane County's Senior Public Health Officer Dr. Patrick Luedtke said.
“(It's time for) getting back to doing exercise … getting back to doing activities that you stopped doing that may be good for your health, whether it's a book club or meditation or those other things that you may have done collaboratively,” Luedtke said. “People need to get back to those items to ensure baseline health.”
He added that over the last two years, there has been an uptick of bad habits such as substance use during the pandemic. Now is the time to seek treatment, he said.
“As the stress level has dropped a bit, hopefully people won't need to lean on whatever crutch they're leaning on that is an unhealthy crutch,” Luedtke said. “And now it's time to start thinking about those things.”
When should people be concerned about community spread again?
People should think about curbing their socializing and being more stringent about wearing masks once a variant comes into play that is putting more previously immune people in the hospital, according to Cieslak, with the state.
Experts point toward the CDC’s COVID community levels, a measure of the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare systems across the nation.
“That’s our general guide right now,” Luedtke said.
The CDC looks at three metrics to categorize the community threat level as low, medium or high:
New COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past seven days
The percent of staffed in-patient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients
Total new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days
In Lane County, the community level is medium.Marion County is low, and Polk County is medium. Currently, no counties in the state are categorized as high, but a total of 15 are considered medium, which means people at high risk for severe illness should consider wearing a mask and taking additional precautions, according to the CDC.
Normally, an outbreak isn’t considered over until an area goes through two incubation periods without infection, 28 days in the case of COVID-19. But because we are still in a pandemic, meaning the virus continues to grow in many places at once, that rule doesn’t apply, Luedtke said.
Even when community levels are “low” the virus won’t be considered endemic until cases cease to rage in so many locations at once, Luedtke said.
At this point, “most people can go about their business,” Cieslak said, but he recommends those who know they might be vulnerable to being hospitalized by the virus take steps to ask people in their lives to wear masks at their house or ask their close contacts to be vaccinated and boosted.
He also recommends this group prepare to get tested and treated in case they do contract COVID-19.
“Treatment is now pretty widely available. A lot of pharmacies have paxlovid, any physician can prescribe it," Cieslak said. “Make a plan for how you're going to get tested and then quickly get treated if you're one of these high-risk people.”
Paxlovid, a medication made by Pfizer, is an antiviral pill taken orally that can help keep people from getting sick enough to be hospitalized. It’s one of several at-home medications now available to reduce the impacts of the virus.
Despite the climbing cases and uptick in hospitalizations, hopes are high that a more normal world, where COVID-19 poses less of a threat and disrupts life less, lies ahead. Experts are looking towards the possibility that immunity will increase, more people will be inoculated and the variants could continue to become less severe.
“We will continue to see waves of omicron,” Pelz with PeaceHealth said. “I think what will be interesting to see whether (future) waves cause as much hospitalization and death. And I think it's unlikely.”
The Oregon Health Authority's COVID-19 main page: https://govstatus.egov.com/OR-OHA-COVID-19
If you test positive COVID-19: https://govstatus.egov.com/or-oha-covid-19-positive-test
If you're looking for a COVID-19 testing site: https://govstatus.egov.com/or-oha-covid-19-testing
Free PCR testing at the University of Oregon: https://coronavirus.uoregon.edu/map-testing
Where to find COVID-19 vaccines and booster: https://covidblog.oregon.gov/looking-for-a-covid-19-vaccine-or-booster-check-out-these-updated-vaccination-sites
Tracy Loew, a reporter at the Statesman Journal, contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick at Tatiana@registerguard.com or 541-521-7512, and follow her on Twitter @TatianaSophiaPT.
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This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Yes, we're still in a pandemic, Oregon health professionals say. Here's where we stand