SALEM, Ore. — In a press conference on Friday morning, Governor Kate Brown defended her decision to place 15 Oregon counties under "Extreme Risk" restrictions after the state surpassed a benchmark of 300 people hospitalized with COVID-19.
"Moving any county into Extreme Risk is not a decision we take lightly," Brown said, pointing to the hospitalization metric added in early April that kept a number of counties from entering Extreme Risk for several weeks in spite of rising case rates.
Vaccination progress has meant that fewer seniors are being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, Brown said, but severe cases have increased among younger groups with the increasing spread of virus variants. The Governor said that hospitalizations of people 18 to 34 has increased nearly 50 percent.
"I was presented with data showing two paths that Oregon could take," Brown said. "One in which we took no additional action and stood by while more people die from this disease, or another that required a temporary tightening of restrictions for certain counties, but could save hundreds of lives and prevent as many as 450 hospitalizations over the next three weeks. As your Governor, I chose to save lives."
Brown reiterated that Oregon's restrictions should be lifted by the end of June as vaccinations proceed, and highlighted another $20 million in relief funds earmarked for struggling businesses. That funding will be distributed to counties for them to make available.
Oregon's COVID-19 restrictions — particularly in Extreme Risk counties where indoor dining is prohibited effective Friday — have earned increasing pushback from local government officials and small businesses foundering under a year's-worth of fluctuating constraints.
In a letter addressed to Brown earlier this week, dozens of county commissioners and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association argued that restaurants and other impacted businesses have not been highlighted as a primary vector of viral spread, while much of Oregon's population most vulnerable to COVID-19 has had the chance to become vaccinated.
Dr. Peter Graven, lead data scientist with OHSU's Business Intelligence unit, indicated in Friday's press conference that three or four more weeks of risk level restrictions would be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19 when paired with current vaccination trends.
"We already know this policy is effective when Oregonians put their minds to it," Dr. Graven said. "Following the risk level policies for those counties in Extreme or High Risk is another huge sacrifice, but if we can follow a short pause in those activities where the virus thrives — namely indoors, without masks, and in close proximity to people outside our household — our modeling shows that it will effectively halt increases in cases, and prevent another 176 Oregonians from dying of COVID-19 and over 700 more hospitalizations."
Graven insisted that shifting to outdoor-only dining in counties with rapid spread is "the right policy."
According to Oregon Health Authority data, most of Oregon's largest COVID-19 outbreaks continue to occur at a few types of workplaces — state prisons, warehouse facilities, food processing facilities, and hospitals. However, there are several ongoing outbreaks at restaurants, the largest totaling 21 cases as of this week's report.
The OHA also lists outbreaks at schools and childcare centers. Most outbreaks have been relatively small, but one — Summit High School in Bend — has infected 60 students and one staff member. Brown said that she would not change current policies allowing for full-time classroom learning in Oregon schools, despite the increase in cases among younger groups.
State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said that Oregon's overall rise in cases can be attributed to a number of different sources, including social gatherings, attendance at bars and restaurants, workplace outbreaks, and an increasing prevalence of untraceble community spread cases.
Sidelinger indicated that Oregon's case trends have started to resemble where they were in the fall of 2020, when surging cases pushed the state close to overwhelming hospital capacity. COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked at 584 last year, Sidelinger said. There were 339 people in Oregon hospitals with COVID-19 as of Friday morning.
"Without taking action, that curve, that number of Oregonians who are sick and at risk for dying, will continue to increase," Sidelinger said. "So these measures are designed to help limit the transmission from individuals as we get more vaccines into arms."
As of Friday, Brown said that roughly half of all adult Oregonians had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.