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Sidelinger: Recent slowing in COVID-19 surge a hopeful sign, but no time to let down our guard

'Surge is far from finished ... remains a formidable threat'

SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ) – A recent, promising decline from record-high COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and cases does not mean it’s time to ease up, but instead to redouble efforts to keep all Oregonians safe through vaccinations, masks and distancing efforts, State Health Officer and Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Thursday.

“I’m happy to deliver some promising news about the current landscape,” Sidelinger told reporters and the public at a livestreamed briefing. “Daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths are slowly coming down from their record highs, an indication Oregonians are stepping up to fend off this virus” and the surge fueled by the far more contagious delta variant.

“But the ability to regain the upper hand is dependent on getting more Oregonians vaccinated, and all of us continuing to wear ours masks indoors and outdoors among crowds,” he said, adding that the “surge is far from finished” and “remains a formidable threat,” putting hospitals “under significant stress.”

Daily cases and hospitalizations “appear to have stabilized after peaking at the start of the month,” Sidelinger said, with models predicting a further, gradual decline.

Repeating a message of recent months, Sidelinger said that unvaccinated Oregonians “continue to make up an overwhelming majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, here and nationwide.” The data shows the vaccines are “an effective shield” against severe cases of the virus, he added.

Sidelinger also had a message for those who think their risk is over because they already have had the virus: “Data shows you get better protection” with the vaccine, “even after you’ve recovered from COVID-19.”

The health officer said it’s hoped the vaccines will be available this fall to children under 12, and the state will work to make sure they are widely available.

As bad as recent months have been, “it could have been much worse,” Sidelinger said, with Oregon losing far more people to the virus. And for that, he again thanked Oregonians: “Your shared commitment is blunting the surge.”

Regarding the recently discussed Mu “variant of interest,” Sidelinger said they are not seeing it spread across Oregon. If it does take hold, he said, they will look at the data on how it spreads in communities with lower or higher vaccination rates.

At present, he said, the delta variant is involved in 95 percent of recent cases, he said, and ‘we’re seeing younger and middle-aged adults dying at higher numbers.” (Several of Wednesday's 46 deaths were people in their 50s or 40s; one was 39.)

“Delta really is a different enemy,” he said. “It spreads far more quickly, and is causing far more serious disease in those who are unvaccinated. Deaths and hospitalizations have been impacting people in the prime of their lives. It’s taking people from us far too early.”

But as people gather in crowds for events and move indoors for colder weather, Sidelinger said there will likely be an increase in cases and hospitalizations this fall and winter. How bad it might get, he couldn’t predict, but expressed hope if the surge keeps dropping that Oregonians will be able to celebrate the holidays in “hopefully almost normal fashion, like 2019 and before. But we need to be prepared for all the possibilities.”

While some worrisome cases have hit public schools – Reynolds High in the Portland area, the state’s second-largest high school, just announced is returning to distance learning – Sidelinger said he remains optimistic that with the layered safety measures in place, most Oregon students will be able to continue in in-person learning this school year.

Sidelinger also told a reporter the state wont be mandating vaccination for all eligible students, though there have been state laws in place for decades that require other school vaccinations, before youngsters can enter kindergarten, for example.

“The process is set in state statute,” he said. “For right now, we haven’t chosen to go down that route, because we’re making pretty good progress vaccinating students who are eligible.” Schools can implement more strict vaccine requirements, he said, and some private schools have done that.

Sidelinger told another reporter that while the state tracks cases linked to schools, as well as contact tracing results, it is not tracking how many schools or districts have had to return to distance learning.

As Idaho steps up rationing of care due to shortage of staff and hospital beds, Sidelinger said the situation is not as severe in Oregon, though rationing of care actually has been happening for quite some time, meaning orthopedic and other procedures to alleviate pain or symptoms are “just not happening” due to the issues at hospitals.

Asked about the booster shots, Sidelinger noted that they already are available for the immunocompromised, and decisions from federal officials in coming days will address how states proceed.

“We have seen some reduction in protection from the vaccine,” he said, expressing particular concern for older people at higher risk. They “will be first in line” when booster shots are approved, probably six to eight months out from the original vaccination. It likely will start with those who received the Pfizer vaccine, followed by those who got the Moderna shot. “We’re waiting on a timeline” for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson recipients, he added.

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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