Oregon health officials urge people to stay up to date on their COVID shots and to keep masking if they’re high-risk for the disease. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Along with warmer weather, the weeks ahead are likely to bring a brighter outlook on the respiratory disease front, a leading Oregon health official said Thursday.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said during a monthly news conference about COVID and other infections that the “near-term outlook” is good.
“Our sense of optimism is growing,” Sidelinger said. “We have made it through the worst respiratory virus surge this state has ever seen.”
It’s been just over three years since the first COVID case emerged in Oregon on Feb. 28, 2020.
“I remember that day well,” Sidelinger said. “The daily reports of hundreds of COVID-19 cases and deaths and the suffering and loss.”
A total of 963,565 residents have contracted COVID in Oregon, according to the state’s figures, and 9,373 have died.
Cases surged in early March, with nearly 530 cases reported the week of March 6, but hospitalizations have not risen much past 200, with nearly 230 hospitalized with COVID at the latest count, Sidelinger said. That compares with about a peak of nearly 1,180 hospitalizations on Sept. 1, 2021 during the delta surge and 1,130 hospitalizations on Jan. 27, 2022 when omicron was spreading. Since late December, hospitalizations of patients with COVID have fallen from about 350.
“I feel confident that by next month, our state’s hospitalization rates for respiratory diseases will return to a lower level in Oregon hospitals,” Sidelinger said. “We are headed in the right direction.”
Last week the state announced that on April 3 it will end one of the last pandemic restrictions: masks in health care settings, including long-term care facilities, behavioral health clinics, dental offices, school-based health centers, ambulances and pharmacies.
“I believe these places are safer now than they ever were earlier in the pandemic or last fall’s respiratory surge, but high-risk person can and should take additional steps to protect themselves and reduce the risks by wearing a mask in these and other indoor settings by staying up to date with recommended vaccines and boosters,” Sidelinger said.
Some health care facilities – and certain designated areas – will continue to require masks to protect vulnerable people and those with compromised immune systems. They might include transplant units or areas for patients receiving chemotherapy, he said.
The state is stocked with enough vaccines and antiviral medication to last through summer, Sidelinger said. After that, vaccines, at least, will be covered by insurers, he said.
“I feel good about our current supplies to combat COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses,” Sidelinger said. “But this pandemic has demonstrated time and time again, though, that the public health system needs investment to continue to combat what’s in front of us and what could potentially be in front of us.”
Sidelinger said the Oregon Health Authority will end its monthly COVID briefings to the media next month. But he said officials will continue to monitor illnesses and to analyze the virus for any genetic changes that could indicate the emergence of a new deadly variant.
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