COVID continues to sicken hundreds of people every day in Oregon, though fewer people need intensive care, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

“Unlike every other past surge, we are not seeing significant increases of people in the ICU and especially (on) ventilators,” Patrick Allen, director of the health authority, told a state House committee on Friday. 

On Thursday, there were only six people statewide on ventilators, he said. 

One change from a year ago is the availability of COVID treatments. Providers can prescribe three antivirals to disrupt the viral cycle or prevent the virus from multiplying, according to Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist. There also are two infusions to prevent severe disease or to prevent someone from getting COVID. The latter drug, EVUSHELD, is only for people with compromised immune systems or for those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons, Sidelinger told the House Interim Special Committee on COVID-19 Response.

The virus continues to spread in Oregon, but the number of new illnesses reported each day are no longer increasing by 50% as they were a few weeks ago, Allen said. On Thursday, just over 1,800 new cases were reported in the state.

Allen said this figure does not reflect all cases. Many people who test positive at home do not report their illness. He said the health authority might only be tracking one-tenth of cases statewide.

“COVID is certainly still with us,” Sidelinger said.

More than 4% of people who seek treatment in an emergency room have COVID-like symptoms, which Allen said is relatively high.

While cases of severe illness are not spiking, long COVID continues to affect hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, according to Dr. Eric Herman, OHSU’s chief primary care and population health officer. A person is considered to have long COVID when symptoms persist four or more weeks after the initial infection. Herman told the committee that up to 24 million people in the U.S. have or have had long Covid out of 80 million infections. Long Covid cases in Oregon could be as high as 230,000 people. So far, more than 765,000 Oregonians have tested positive.

Long COVID affects all ages, but women between 35 and 69, minority communities and people with chronic conditions like diabetes face the highest risk.

The disease can be caused by a dysfunctional immune response, inflammation, clotting or other problems. Symptoms include fatigue, memory and problem-solving problems, joint and muscle pain, sleep troubles and headaches, Herman said. Recovery can take weeks, months or even years.

Vaccination demand stalls

Vaccination is the best prevention against long COVID and from severe disease.

Vaccination rates have leveled off, according to state data. About 75% of the population has had one vaccine dose, and nearly 39% have received one booster. Vaccination rates are highest in those 65 and older who face a higher risk of severe disease, while rates among people aged 20 through 49 and 50 through 64 are comparable, Allen said. 

Allen said the state narrowed the vaccination equity gap over the past year: Vaccination rates among Black Oregonians and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are now about the same or greater than those of white Oregonians. However, vaccination rates among Hispanic Oregonians continue to lag. 

The state has conducted door-to-door vaccination campaigns in underserved areas but that’s not led to a stark increase in vaccinations, Allen said.

“We’re really running out of people who want to get vaccinated,” Allen told the committee.

A new vaccine for children aged 6 months through 4 years is expected to be available in about three weeks. But Allen said the state does not expect a surge of interest.

Nevertheless, COVID continues to affect children, according to a specialist from Oregon Health & Science University.

Dr. Dawn Nolt, an OHSU pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, said children aged 5 to 11 appear to face the biggest risk of contracting an inflammatory disease that can affect every part of the body. Nolt said nearly 70 children have contracted the disease, multisystem inflammatory syndrome, including an 8-year-old. The disease appears to affect children who’ve been exposed to COVID.

Peter Graven, the lead COVID forecaster at OHSU, said the number of people reporting COVID symptoms in Oregon is relatively high compared with the rest of the country. The current surge, fueled by the variant BA.2 hit the East Coast first. Graven expects hospitalizations to peak at 313 on June 14 and then subside. His calculations show a relatively low level of new infections by August.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.