Good news on vaccine allocation and COVID-19 trends, plus an update on new mutations

OHA responds to President Biden’s vaccine eligibility announcement

At a news conference on March 12, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Patrick Allen addressed President Biden’s March 11 exciting announcement directing states to open vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1.

“We appreciate the administration’s commitment to delivering enough vaccine to meet the President’s goal,” he said. Allen wants Oregonians to know:

  • Oregon is ready: Oregon’s vaccinators have the capacity to double the current average number of doses administered per day, which is about 24,000 today.
  • Oregon is on track with our current eligibility timelines, which we set based on our current allocations. We’ve been clear we want to advance our timelines, and we can move them up, if we receive enough doses from the federal government.
  • But we need to know when more vaccine will arrive in Oregon before we can tell a frontline worker or anyone else that we’re adjusting our timelines. Therefore, until we get more clarity, we need to keep our current timelines in place. We will provide updates as we learn more.

Oregon’s recent COVID-19 trends

At the press conference, State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger reported on Oregon’s general trend of declining daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and the percent of positive test results.

  • Just 10 weeks ago – as 2021 began – our seven-day rolling average of new cases was 1,149. As of yesterday, the seven-day rolling average was 295, a 74% decline.
  • For the week from March 1 through March 7, OHA reported 1,729 cases, a 35% decrease from the previous week.
  • COVID-19 hospitalizations are also trending dramatically lower. On Jan. 2, OHA reported 466 COVID-19 patients in our hospitals. On March 11, there were 121, a 74% decline.
  • For the first week of March, we reported the lowest weekly total of COVID-19 patients in five months.
  • The percentage of positive tests has also dropped – to 2.8%, which is the lowest since our change to a test-based testing method in mid-November.
  • COVID-19 associated deaths have also fallen from their peaks in December.
  • A month before the March 12 conference, 27 of Oregon’s 36 counties were classified as extreme or high risk from spread of COVID-19. Today there are 11, and only two are considered at extreme risk. This means 25 counties are at moderate or lower risk.

“All of this is really encouraging news,” Dr. Sidelinger said. “It’s a testament to our collective efforts to control the spread of the virus. And I say thank you Oregonians.”

On March 12, an updated COVID-19 forecast was released as well. You can learn more in the daily news release.

Learning more about mutations

Though there was a lot of encouraging news at the March 12 conference, we were reminded to stay vigilant: COVID-19 has not been eliminated in Oregon.

Dr. Renee Edwards, the chief medical officer for OHSU Health, discussed COVID-19 variants.

She noted that, in early March, two concerning variants – those prevalent in Brazil and California – were found from COVID-19 test samples taken in Douglas and Lane Counties. In the second week of March, researchers at the Oregon SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Center at OHSU had detected a novel virus variant, never before detected in the United States, right here in our own backyard. This variant contains characteristics of both the B.1.1.7 strain – that first found in the United Kingdom – and a newer virus mutation known as E484K – or “Eek” – that is currently circulating in both Brazil and South Africa.

So, what does this all mean? There is still a lot to learn about how these new variants may impact Oregonians. More investigation is necessary to better understand how prevalent they are here, if they increase severity of illness or whether they may infect a vaccinated person.

However, we do know that viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, constantly change. It is a common part of a virus’ life cycle, which is why are we hearing of so many variants. This also means that we will continue to see new mutations and variants emerge through the rest of the pandemic.

Dr. Edwards reminded us that not all virus mutations are troublesome. While some may become more persistent or contagious, others may not affect disease severity or how fast they spread.

This is why it is important that we continue to identify, monitor and report any signs of new virus variants that may result in Oregon, or across the globe.

Edwards also had some good news to share: “We are encouraged that the currently available COVID-19 vaccines appear to be effective in preventing severe illness and death in virus variants of concern, including those here in Oregon.”

You can see a recording of the press conference in English or Spanish.

This article first appeared in the March 12, 2021 issue of Oregon Coronavirus Update.