Oregon’s hospitals are in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by a rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, state health officials said Friday.
Oregon is at a “tipping point,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen at a Friday press briefing. The steep increase in infections is due primarily to community spread driven by informal get-togethers in private residences.
Allen pleaded with Oregonians to follow mandates to wear masks, limit get-togethers to six people, wash their hands frequently and avoid travel during the upcoming holidays.
“We all want this pandemic to be over,” Allen said. “We all have the power to end this nightmare.”
Not following the guidelines will “feed the virus what it needs” to spread, escalating hospitalizations and deaths.
Statewide as of Friday, 412 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, a 142% increase since Nov. 1.
At St. Charles Bend, 11 COVID-19 patients were in the hospital Friday, three of those in the ICU and one on a ventilator. Deschutes County reported a record 60 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday.
OHA reported 1,306 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths in Oregon on Friday, surpassing the record 1,225 new cases reported on Thursday.
The death toll on Friday was four, down from the record-breaking 20 reported Thursday.
Since the pandemic hit Oregon at the end of February, there have been 62,175 cases of COVID-19 and 812 deaths. Nationwide, there have been 11.8 million cases and 254,297 deaths.
At least two vaccines against COVID-19 are expected to start becoming available in very limited amounts around Jan. 1. But Allen said the timeline for when most Oregonians might get the vaccine is “completely unknown.”
Oregon has been under a COVID-19 “state of emergency” since March 8, allowing Gov. Kate Brown to issue executive orders with restrictions necessary to control the virus.
Brown implemented a two-week “freeze” that began Wednesday, Nov. 18, which caps private get-togethers to six people from no more than two households. Other restrictions include closing gyms and entertainment venues, and requiring restaurants to restrict sales to takeout only.
Allen said that opponents of the more stringent COVID-19 restrictions under the “freeze” have argued that Oregon’s relatively low total case numbers and deaths compared to other states should be evidence Brown should be opening up businesses and schools.
Republican lawmakers, a coalition of local officials, and the association of the state’s restaurant owners have all written letters asking Brown to revoke some or all of the restrictions.
“I have heard frequently from those who have refused to believe this pandemic is serious if we aren’t seeing hospitalizations and deaths,” Allen said. “Those hospitalizations and deaths are here, and are only likely to go up.”
Among the critics on Friday was President Donald Trump.
At a Friday press briefing — the first since Oct. 1 — White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany specifically singled out Oregon’s two-week “freeze” for criticism.
McEnany called the freeze and other restrictions around the country “Orwellian,” a reference to the book “1984” by George Orwell set in a society under strict state control.
Her comments came after the White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, said it supported state efforts to suppress infection rates.
The Oregon officials Friday defended the state’s testing for COVID-19.
“Oregon tests at a level that is comparable to most other states,” Allen said. “We’re right in line with other states per capita.”
Oregon is changing the way it reports test results, switching from people tested to number of tests. The new method is in line with how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports infection, as well as several other states.
The new formula drops Oregon’s 12.9% rate of positive tests to 6.7%
“Case counts have skyrocketed,” Allen said, but the measuring system inflates the rate.
The new metric will include people who receive multiple tests, such as residents and staff at long-term care facilities.
Dr. Melissa Sutton, a senior advisor to OHA, said 966,000 Oregonians have been tested for COVID-19, or roughly 1-in-4 of the state’s estimated 4.2 million residents.
Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, OHA said there would be no press briefing next week. The next question-and-answer session with media is scheduled for Dec.4.