State shifts toward normalcy after three years of pandemic

Some public health emergencies are likely to end this spring as hospitalizations for COVID drop

By: - February 9, 2023 2:25 pm
Dean Sidelinger gives month news briefing on respiratory illnesses

Dr. Dean Sidelinger briefed the media on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 on COVID-19, other respiratory infections and mpox. (Screenshot)

Oregon is moving toward normalcy after three years of the pandemic but some masking requirements are likely to remain in place for months, a state health official said Thursday.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority, told the media during the authority’s monthly briefing that hospitalizations for viral respiratory infections in the state have plunged since peaking late last year, including hospitalizations for RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which primarily affects children.

“We are entering yet another important, more sustainable phase of the pandemic,” Sidelinger said. “Even as we monitor for temporary increases in COVID-19 and influenza B activity in the coming weeks, overall hospitalizations are expected to continue trending downward.” 

Mpox cases

The state is seeing only a few new cases a month of mpox, sometimes called monkeypox, Dean Sidelinger, state health epidemiologist said. “Typically one to two and often no cases – and we expect this to continue for the foreseeable future as we settle into an endemic phase of the breakout.”

 The state has tracked 270 cases in 12 counties. That outbreak has subsided as increasing numbers of people receive the Jynneos vaccine.

Nearly 87% of adults in the state have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, while a quarter have gotten the most recent booster, which protects against the original omicron strain. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 also have stabilized since late December, but over the past two weeks, cases have risen, likely because of a new dominant variant in Oregon, XBB.1.5, that scientists call the most transmissible to date.

It’s not clear what the spike means or whether it will lead to increasing hospitalizations, Sidelinger said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that hospitalizations for COVID will remain flat this month. But hospitals in Oregon remain under pressure.

“Hospitals remain at or near capacity as large numbers of people continue seeking care for all types of medical conditions,” Sidelinger said.

The state has tallied nearly 2,700 new cases of COVID over the past week – which excludes people who don’t report their illness – and 19 new deaths. To date, about 954,000 people in Oregon have contracted the virus, and 9,250 have died. There are currently 226 people hospitalized with COVID, including 26 in intensive care units. That compares with 353 on Dec. 29 last year.

On March 6, the state of emergency declared in December by former Gov. Kate Brown related to COVID-19 and other respiratory infections will expire. It has given hospitals and health care facilities access to more professionals and resources to help them cope with a rise in demand.

And on May 11, the federal government is not expected to again extend the public health emergency related to COVID-19 as it has done every 90 days since May 2020. That means that people on private or company insurance plans could be charged for vaccinations, COVID treatment and testing. 

But Sidelinger said before that happens, at least for vaccines, the federal government will have to deplete its stockpile.

In the next few weeks, he said, Oregon health officials will determine what criteria to use to decide whether to lift the mask mandate for hospitals and other health care settings. If the current outlook continues, that mandate could be lifted in coming months, but it could come back in the fall or winter if illnesses increase, he said.

“Masks are incredibly effective at preventing illnesses from these commonly circulating respiratory pathogens,” Sidelinger said. “They have always been an important tool in health care settings.”

Sidelinger said health officials are not sure whether COVID, like influenza and RSV, will become a seasonal disease, with an increase in cases in the fall and winter when people spend more time indoors. But he said the state has shifted away from the pandemic emergency. 

“As conditions continue to improve in Oregon, and as our state and the rest of the country finally begin the formal wind-down of the pandemic response after more than three years, we are seeing more positive changes that speak to the normalization – and manageability – of COVID-19 in our lives,” he said. 


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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.