As the omicron variant of COVID-19 leads to a rapid rise in virus cases, the number of Clatsop County residents who have received a booster dose against the virus continues to lag far behind those who have completed their initial vaccination series.

The county said nearly 11,000 residents have received a booster dose. The booster rate is highest — 58% — among people 65 and older, according to Oregon Health Authority figures. In that population, 85.8% have completed their initial vaccinations.

Vaccine

Public health leaders urge people to get a booster against the coronavirus.

The booster rate declines with each younger age group.

People 50 to 64 years old have a 37% booster rate, compared to 76.5% that completed their initial series.

People 20 to 49 have a 19.3% booster rate, compared to 65.4% that completed their initial series.

And boosters among 18- and 19-year-olds stand at 8.5%, compared to 52.7% that completed their initial series.

Margo Lalich, the county’s interim public health director, said the county would like to see boosters keeping pace with vaccinations. “We definitely want to see it higher,” she said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get boosters five months after their initial double dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“The data is really clear that individuals who receive both vaccinations and the booster are avoiding hospitalization if they do contract COVID,” Jason Plamondon, the chief nursing officer at Providence Seaside Hospital, said.

“You may still get it,” he added, “but your symptoms are going to be much more mild. Those that are requiring hospitalization and then end up with complications are individuals who are unvaccinated.”

Boosters have been available since fall.

Lalich said there are several reasons why people eligible to get the extra dose may not have done so. People who are vaccinated may see getting the booster as unnecessary, or as something they can postpone. Meanwhile, many people have returned to work and are busy again. Lalich has heard anecdotally that people are experiencing “pandemic fatigue.”

But, knowing that the booster increases immunity, Lalich thought people would want to get boosted, particularly when the holidays arrived and more people planned to gather and travel. “But we just haven’t seen it,” she said.

People can now make an appointment to get a booster on Wednesdays at a Camp Rilea drive-thru clinic. Local health care providers can also administer the additional jab.

On Wednesday morning, Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria had four patients hospitalized with COVID-19, Judy Geiger, the hospital’s vice president of patient care services, said at a news conference that day. She said the hospital has hovered lately between four and five virus patients.

Earlier in the week, the hospital had few beds available. “We were full on the in-patient side,” Chris Laman, Columbia Memorial’s director of pharmacy and cancer center services, said.

Providence Seaside had three COVID-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday, Plamondon said.

On top of the surge, the hospitals’ caregivers are also starting to test positive for the virus. This fact makes this surge feel different than previous ones, Geiger said.

“We’re truly seeing more caregivers out sick, as well, which impacts our ability to care for patients,” Geiger said. She said five employees who draw blood in the hospital’s lab were out with illness, though Geiger did not say whether the illness was COVID-19.

Both the hospitals and the county health department are seeing a rush of people seeking virus tests. The hospitals’ call volume has exploded.

People are asked to call the county’s Public Information Call Center at 503-325-8500 — the community COVID line — so that cases can be triaged.

Some callers may be directed to an urgent care or emergency department, others to the county testing clinic or to clinics that the hospitals have set up. And some people may be told to isolate at home.

People exposed to a COVID-positive case but who are boosted — or got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine within the last two months, or the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine within the last six months — and don’t show symptoms need not quarantine. For them, a test is suggested after five days and masking urged for 10 days.

Most emergency departments elsewhere in Region 1 — an Oregon Health Authority-designated region that includes Clatsop, Columbia, Tillamook, Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties — are “on divert.” This means that they are notifying emergency medical services workers not to send patients due to shortages of beds or staff.

Columbia Memorial and Providence Seaside aren’t on divert, Laman said, but the region’s challenge will make it difficult to transfer patients to Portland hospitals for higher levels of care in the coming weeks. Columbia Memorial is developing plans to deal with that, he said.

Nancee Long, the hospital’s communications director, in an email, said, “The peak of this surge is on the horizon.”

The Oregon Health Authority reported 41 new virus cases for the county on Tuesday and 95 new cases over the weekend.

Since the pandemic began, the county had recorded 3,198 virus cases and 37 deaths as of Tuesday.