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Oregon and Washington public health officials signal pivot to endemic COVID-19 stage as cases begin to climb again

Even with mask mandates having ended in most places, medical experts in both Oregon and Washington urged people to continue wearing masks to prevent infection.

OREGON, USA — Health officials in both Oregon and Washington are tracking a rise in COVID-19 cases, but said Wednesday that there is no cause for alarm yet.

In separate news conferences, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) spoke about the state of coronavirus in each state.

"Unfortunately, we're not done with COVID yet," OHA's Dr. Tom Jeanne said. "But we're closer to normality than ever."

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"[It's] the transition away from pandemic response to learning to live with COVID," Washington DOH's Dr. Scott Lindquist said.

Both states reported a steady rise in COVID-19 cases as people gather again and reduce mask use. However, hospitalizations have not increased in the same manner.

"Means we have good capacity in our health care system," said Dr. Umair A. Shah with Washington DOH.

"Much different than where we were a year or two ago," Jeanne said.

Experts across the board credited high rates of immunity, above 80%, with most people vaccinated against COVID with at least one dose.

Washington DOH warned that immunity wanes over time and encouraged people to get a booster shot if their primary-series immunization was more than four months ago.

Both states are using wastewater testing to track the virus's prevalence in communities.

"I think you can take it as a given there's a lot of COVID-19 out there," said Dr. Paul Cieslak of OHA. "If you're in a crowded setting, you're going to be exposed to the virus."

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The BA2 subvariant is the dominant strain. In Washington, it accounts for about 90% of documented cases. The variant is highly contagious, but tends to be less severe.

In Oregon, OHA said average reported case numbers have risen to more than 600 per week, up from a couple hundred a few weeks ago. Because of unreported at-home COVID tests, OHA said those case numbers could actually be 5-10 times greater. 

However, because fewer cases are resulting in severe illness and hospitalization, the state is not concerned yet. It is watching numbers and tracking forecasts to make sure hospital capacity remains at reasonable levels.

"The most recent model projects a slight increase in hospitalizations over the next few months," Jeanne said.

Even with mask mandates having ended in most places, medical experts in both Oregon and Washington urged people to continue wearing masks to prevent infection, especially in crowded areas.

OHA said, however, it did not have plans or metrics in place to reinstate a mask mandate.

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