COVID-19 news in Oregon has been mostly upbeat in recent weeks. Oregon case numbers are improving, hospitalization rates are dropping, and the winter triple threat of COVID-19, flu and RSV has been retreating.
"We've made it through the worst," Oregon Health Officer Dean Sidelinger said Thursday, March 9. "Such optimism was not always easy to muster."
While COVID-19 has less impact today than nearly any time since it first appeared in the state in February 2020, Oregon's vigilance toward the pandemic is not at an end.
Astoria, Medford, Sunriver, Forest Grove, Grants Pass and Hillsboro, Port Orford were showing "sustained increases" in the presence of omicron in local wastewater, according to recent Oregon Health Authority tests reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the rise of home COVID-19 test kits, officials are wary of reported cases of COVID-19 compared to a time when nearly all tests were done in a health care setting.
Epidemiologists have increasingly leaned on sewers and septic tanks to tell a more accurate story. Data compiled by testing sewage water indicates how prevalent the virus has become in nearby homes, schools and businesses.
Statewide, the trends were enough for the Health Authority to announce that hospitals and other health facilities could choose to no longer require masks for staff and visitors on their premises.
The new mask directive takes effect April 3 to give facilities time to decide whether to retain mask rules and to inform staff and the public of their decisions.
Sidelinger said Thursday that data showed COVID-19 test positivity rates below 10% and falling.
The influenza test positivity is 1.2%.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus — known by its acronym, RSV — had test positivity at or under 3.5%. RSV usually rises during colder, wetter periods of the year, which also drives people indoors with less ventilation, increasing chances of spread.
Sidelinger said Thursday that the current positivity rate and trend line was good enough to effectively declare the RSV "season" as over until at least next winter.
Another hopeful sign: A recent forecast from Oregon Health & Science University that 283 people would be hospitalized this week with COVID-19. The Health Authority said hospitalizations with the virus peaked at 232 and have fallen, as of Thursday, to 229.
But state, federal and international public health officials say there is daily evidence that COVID-19 is still very much among the population in the form of more contagious but less virulent infections from omicron subvariants.
The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported this week that there have been 676 million cases worldwide, and more than 6.87 million deaths. The United States has had 103.6 million cases and 1.12 million deaths.
Average daily deaths from COVID-19 are a fraction of the worst levels during January 2021, according to an analysis Thursday by The New York Times of state and local data. January 2021 saw an average daily nationwide death rate that at times topped 3,300 people per day.
After falling sharply with the arrival of vaccines in early 2021, the hypercontagious omicron wave fueled a spike that hit 2,669 average annual deaths in early February 2022.
But the average of deaths fell to under 500 in mid-April 2022. Average daily deaths rose to 566 in early January 2023 before dropping again, only to rebound to 541 on March 2.
Deaths are again declining and health officials have projected that — barring a more virulent subvariant — lower contagion rates are highly unlikely to peak again, at least through the warmer weather of late summer.
Sidelinger noted that COVID-19 infections have risen and fallen in at least seven waves since February 2020.
A recent rise in the amount of virus found in wastewater from some parts of the state could be a harbinger of a wider spread, or a temporary anomaly, Sidelinger said.
"So it’s possible that we may well see the numbers rise again in the coming weeks," Sidelinger said. "However, the combination of vaccines and prior infections seems to be keeping Oregonians from being sick enough to need serious treatment."
OHA announced on Thursday that it was ending the monthly COVID-19 briefings for the media, part of an ongoing cutback.
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