The Oregon Health Authority has recommended that people wear masks in indoor public settings as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations grow across the state.
The state’s guidance on Tuesday came hours after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks, including among people who have been vaccinated against the virus, in portions of the country where the virus is surging because of the delta variant.
The health authority on Wednesday reported 804 new virus cases in Oregon, including eight in Clatsop County. On Tuesday, the state reported 1,032 new virus cases, including 13 in Clatsop County.
“Today’s reported sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations in Oregon are sobering reminders that the pandemic is not over, especially for Oregonians who remain unvaccinated,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist and health officer, said in a statement Tuesday.
Most of the new virus cases in Oregon and across the country involve people who are unvaccinated. But the CDC also cited data that showed the potential for the delta variant to spread among people who have received vaccines.
“We know that the CDC is recommending indoor masking again. We would encourage people to follow that, and then again, vaccinations are your best option for avoiding the virus at all,” Tom Bennett, a spokesman for Clatsop County, said.
Asked about the recent rise of virus cases in the county, Bennett said “the large majority are unvaccinated. We’re seeing more people out without masks, congregated without masks. It’s concerning, but it’s really not all that surprising.”
Oregon lifted most government restrictions to contain the virus at the end of June, as the state, and nation, appeared to have reached a milestone in the pandemic. Public health experts expected a rise of new cases after the restrictions were lifted and life returned closer to normal, but the delta variant, and a slower pace of vaccinations, have disrupted the recovery.
In pockets of Oregon, particularly in counties with lower vaccination rates, new virus cases are placing a strain on hospitals.
More than half of all patients hospitalized at CHI St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton as of Tuesday had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
The hospitalizations come as Umatilla County reported one of the largest surges of virus cases in Oregon — about 8% of the state’s total cases over the past two weeks despite accounting for just 2% of its population. The county’s case rate during that time period was more than seven times higher than Multnomah and Washington counties in the Portland metro area.
Hospitalizations statewide spiked to the highest totals since April on Tuesday with 259, up 52 since Monday, according to the state.
Local hospitals will sometimes refer critically ill patients to other facilities for a higher level of care. But regional hospitals have been unable to accept transfers because they are full with patients, Emily Smith, the CHI St. Anthony Hospital spokeswoman, said in an email.
For one patient in need of a transfer, health care workers reached out to 15 different hospitals before finding one with an available bed, Smith said.
On Monday, the emergency department’s physician director reported a threefold increase in patients testing positive in the department over the past five days, Smith said. On Friday and Saturday alone, approximately 40% of patients who came to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms tested positive. None had been vaccinated against the virus.
Health officials say the surge in Umatilla County is largely due to social gatherings and large summer events that have ensued since the state lifted restrictions.
Umatilla County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Oregon, with fewer than 40% of residents fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. The county reported 112 new virus cases on Tuesday, a total that included cases from Saturday through Monday, according to county officials.