“Get vaccinated and get your booster” – public health officials brief Board on latest COVID-19 trends

1 September 2022

With Omicron boosters expected to become widely available after Labor Day, public health leaders are urging eligible groups to get the latest vaccine to reduce the risk of serious disease.

On Tuesday, Aug.30, officials from the health department briefed Multnomah County commissioners about the latest COVID-19 trends, just as students began to return to class. The transition to fall also marks the beginning of the traditional respiratory disease season in the United States.

The Omicron variant has changed the way health officials respond to COVID-19. With high disease rates and underreported cases, the county no longer sees the reported percentage of positive cases as a reliable metric. Instead, public health officials rely on hospital data to monitor disease activity. And, they note, ICU admissions and patient numbers on ventilators are both largely flat.

“At the population level, we see fewer people needing intensive care than the number of people meeting the COVID hospitalization definition,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, county health officer.

Chantell Reed, deputy director of the health department’s division of public health, said the county’s strategy reflects a new phase of the pandemic: living with the virus and moving away from a broad emergency response, with lessons and strategies that can be also applied during other pandemics and outbreaks.

“The reality is that we have to move on to living with COVID in our community,” Reed said. “This will give us the opportunity to respond to any virus that occurs in our community.”

Who is dying of COVID-19?

Hospitalization data shows the waves occurred roughly at two-month intervals, Vines said. The risk of death increases exponentially with age, with the highest percentage occurring among older men.

The higher death rate among older men is another reason to improve basic community health through physical activity, nutrition, and reduced drug and alcohol use, Vines added.

While the death rate from COVID-19 remained relatively low across Omicron, the death rate was higher for unvaccinated people. Health officials urge people to stay up to date on their boosters to reduce the risk of serious illness.

After Labor Day there are tailor-made boosters for all over 12 years old. The vaccine should be widely available throughout the healthcare system.

“Key point here: get vaccinated and get your booster,” Vines said.

Ahead of the fall, the county’s public health strategy is based on four goals: lowering mortality among black, indigenous and black residents (BIPOC); keep children in school; continuous responses to epidemics in high-risk contexts; and continue to rely on local epidemiology to inform decision making.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran inquired about the mortality rate among BIPOC residents.

Vines said the State of Oregon stopped conducting intensive case investigations in 2021, which limits reliable race and ethnicity data for COVID-19 cases.

“It will be imperfect, but there is further analysis by our (epidemiological) team on this question, knowing it is interesting,” Vines said.

Keep children safe in school

With students returning to class, back-to-school safety is a top priority in the county. Promoting vaccinations and masking among students is part of the strategy to stabilize cases.

The state threshold for an outbreak is 30% absenteeism or a cohort, such as an entire classroom in a daycare, plus a confirmed case of COVID-19 among those children who are away from home. This triggers a notification to parents, which can include guidance on masking, information on testing and mitigation measures.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann he asked if schools require students to wear masks or be vaccinated.

In response, Reed indicated that universal masking will not be enforced. Rather, it would occur on a case-by-case basis depending on the school.

School employees still need to isolate themselves for at least five days at home if they have been infected with COVID-19, and even after five days, they can only return after they haven’t had a fever for 24 hours. There are currently no quarantine requirements for children or adults who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Communicable Disease Services has a dedicated epidemic team with a full-time school and childcare link, as well as pediatric disease specialists. The team meets regularly with schools to provide guidance on disease prevention and mitigation.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal asked if the masks might be needed for students in the future.

“If there’s a new variant that’s more severe or somehow more severe in children, that’s a tipping point,” Toevs said.

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