PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon's daily COVID case counts have begun to level off, but they're not decreasing very quickly, and the current level of hospitalization is still high enough to strain the state's hospital system.
At a press conference Wednesday, state epidemiologist and health officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger said the blame for the prolonged wave rests mainly with the BA.4 and BA.5 versions of the omicron variant, which are highly transmissible and have an improved ability to sidestep the body's immune defenses.
The Centers for Disease Control listed 24 of Oregon's 36 counties as being at the "high" transmission level at the end of June. Things haven't improved much since then; 21 counties were still in the high category as of July 14, including Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington.
The state's 7-day average for new cases has generally trended downward during that same period, falling from a recent high of 1,915 on June 27 to 1,356 as of Tuesday.
However, wastewater monitoring continues to show high levels of COVID statewide, Sidelinger said, suggesting that a major drop in daily cases isn't on the way anytime soon. Heath officials estimate about 6% of Oregonians are currently infected or recovering from BA.5, he said.
Statewide hospitalizations have fluctuated but more often increased over the past month, rising from 309 on June 17 to 424 as of Wednesday.
That's still less than half the number seen at the height of the omicron and delta waves, Sidelinger noted, but it's enough to strain hospital resources in many parts of the state, especially in conjunction with regular seasonal summertime decreases in staffing.
Sidelinger stressed the importance of getting vaccinated to take the pressure off of hospitals. BA.5 is especially good at dodging the immune system and causing breakthrough cases, he said, but the vaccines still greatly reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
"This is what will keep most of us out of the hospital," he said.
He also touted the newly-authorized Novavax COVID vaccine, which he said will be available in Oregon in the coming weeks. The vaccine uses conventional technology, similar to vaccines for shingles and the flu, which Sidelinger said he hoped would make it a more appealing option for holdouts who have been concerned about the newer mRNA technology in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
The Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education recommend universal masking in communities at the CDC's high transmission level, but Sidelinger said he didn't anticipate a state-level mask mandate at the start of the new school year, with the decision still left up to individual districts.
Sidelinger also gave an update on the status of the monkeypox virus in Oregon. The state has tallied 32 confirmed or presumptive cases as of Tuesday, he said, all of which are in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas or Lane counties.
There haven't been any deaths, he said, but patients have reported that the lesions caused by the illness can be extremely painful.
All of the infections have been in men, he said, and men who have sex with other men appear to be at the highest risk, but there have also been cases of household infection. The virus usually requires skin-to-skin contact to spread, he said, although in rare cases it can spread via droplets.
Monkeypox vaccine supplies continue to be limited, he said, so the state is prioritizing people at the highest risk of infection. The vaccine can still reduce disease severity or prevent it altogether, even if taken after exposure.