A rapidly spreading deadly virus. Record-breaking fires. Acrid smoke from the Pacific to Pendleton. A riot in the Capitol.

As 2020 came to a welcome close a year ago, an exhausted Oregon public had hope for the New Year.

The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed over with the arrival of vaccines. The Labor Day fires were gone and the smoke that gave the state the worst air in the world some days was gone. Protesters who fought with police in the Capitol in Salem were gone with the end of the special session.

Soon, 2020 would be in the rear view mirror. An optimistic joke that the worst had passed was that “Hindsight is 2020.”

But as 2021 in Oregon winds down, it feels like a sequel of the highly unpopular horror classic, 2020 in Oregon.

Dark humor dominates — rueful wordplay that 2021 is actually spelled as “2020 Won.”

Now the question is if we are going to have a trilogy.

In announcing that a sixth wave in two years of COVID-19 would arrive around Jan. 1, Gov. Kate Brown noted that another year of COVID-19 wasn’t on anyone’s wish list. “I know that bracing for a new variant as we head into our second pandemic holiday season is not what we all hoped for,” Brown said.

Catastrophes return

Many of the catastrophes that marked 2020 as no one’s favorite year were back in 2021.

The vaccines set off a mass scramble for appointments, with most people told they might have to wait until mid-summer for inoculation. Then demand fell off a cliff. Bottles of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine with fewer and fewer arms to put them in. From a high of 50,000 shots in April, demand in Oregon shrank to less than a tenth of that on days in June. Vaccination became another political wedge issue. A riot at the U.S. Capitol showed the fragility of peaceful democracy.

The fires were back — earlier and more remote this year — but burning miles of scars in the land and costing million of dollars to contain.

The smoke choked not just Oregon but jetstreams shared it with places as far as Boston. This year added a grim stretch of record-frying heat on June 28. It hit 116 degrees in Portland. Salem was 117. Temperatures more familiar to Death Valley than the Willamette Valley.

As 2022 is about to dawn, there is little swagger that the worst is over. The cornerstone of crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — began on the last day of 2019 with a trickle of infections in China.

It was worldwide — a pandemic — by the end of 2020 with over 300,000 dead in the United States.

Through 2021, the virus threw off variants — most little more than scientific curiosities. But a few — “variants of concern” — would start a roll call of names taken from the Greek alphabet. Delta brought contagion to a new level. Omicron is capping the year as the biggest and fastest, though hopefully less lethal, of them all.

The cases in one city in one country that could be counted on two hands at the end of 2019 would march into 2022 with a tally of 273 million infections worldwide and 5.4 million deaths — led by over 800,000 in the United States.

In January 2021, some forecasts predicted the virus would be under control by June. It felt that way in July, when Oregon reported 92 deaths — the first monthly total to fall below 100 since June 2020, at the beginning of the crisis. A two-week respite around the Fourth of July gave a glimpse of what could pass for normal life.

Delta quickly crushed the hope. By Labor Day, delta peaked. The spike would bottom out in October. No, Thanksgiving. Christmas. March 2022. The steep line plotted on a graph that took two months to peak became a stretched out slope with bumps back up on the way down.

This time, there would be no hiatus. Delta dropped, then at the beginning of December surged in parts of the nation — driven by crisis fatigue of people who now gathered more often indoors, in larger groups, with varying levels of the official guidelines for masks and social distancing. Delta took two months to jump from where it was first seen in India to all 36 counties in Oregon. Omicron was reported in southern Africa on Nov. 22 and was officially in Oregon by Dec. 13.

Attempts to calculate when the pandemic was slowing or receding have led to futility.

After 612 people died in December 2020, the tally slowly dropped with the arrival of vaccines late that month. The worst seemed over.

When delta broke the record with over 900 reported deaths in September, then slid to 640 in October and 249 in November, the path forward looked much brighter.

‘A gut punch’

But the virus is a living, morphing, shape-shifter. What it is today, it isn’t tomorrow, much less a month or a year from now.

Today, nearly three out of four people in Oregon are vaccinated — the 12th-highest rank among 50 states.

A New York Times survey on Saturday of federal, state and local data showed that since the pandemic began, Oregon has had the third-lowest rate of infections and sixth-lowest rate of deaths of the 50 states.

But forecasts come with more caveats this December. The omicron variant may be less lethal. May be milder in most cases.

But new information can make current information grow old and out-of-date very quickly.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was fine for people with two vaccine shots to meet in small groups with others whose status was the same.

Delta was tagged as “the pandemic of the unvaccinated” — and was in the most severe cases. The vaccinated made up less than 5% of the hospitalized and about 1% of the dead.

Omicron could be held at bay in the United States by the dominance of the delta variant. Instead, it is pushing it aside.

“Fully vaccinated” meant two shots of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or one of Johnson & Johnson. Now a booster of the first pair is the marker for maximum protection, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been shelved amid caution over its effectiveness and side effects.

“Exactly one year ago, this week, we came together to celebrate the first COVID vaccinations in Oregon,” Brown said Friday. “We watched with excitement, and frankly a huge sigh of relief, as health care workers from across our state received their first dose.”

One year later, the new year opens with omicron.

“A gut punch,” said Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of the Oregon Health & Science University.

In the streets and stores of Oregon, the sign of the pandemic as of late has been, at most, people wearing masks. In some parts of Oregon where going maskless is a sign of skepticism of the science or political belligerence, even that symbol is absent.

Health workers prepare for more

But health workers across the state say inside hospitals, exhausted doctors, nurses and other medical and health staff deal with an undulating but never absent stream of sickness and death. Now, they must prepare for more.

Cloaked by privacy laws, the state daily issues a ticker of deaths — people reduced to which county they lived in, when they became sick, when and where they died, their gender and age and if they had the catch-all “underlying conditions” that made fatality more likely.

With a few exceptions that attract a public obituary or a level of fame that makes it impossible to conceal their identity, the daily list of names, faces, stories and suffering of the dead remain unknown to all but family and hospital staff who watch as they pass.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s chief epidemiologist, gave a mournful soliloquy on Sept. 16 when Oregon passed 3,500 deaths from COVID-19.

Each morning, he would look at the internal reports of new deaths coming in from around the state. Some made him cry. Some made him angry. Some made him feel something worse.

“Some mornings, I am numb to the pain that the suffering and death that the numbers represent,” he said. “A mother, a father, a son or daughter, brother or sister, grandmother or grandfather, a best friend, a neighbor, a beloved go-worker. Every one of them was loved and every one of them leaves behind grieving loved ones.”

Sidelinger said he longed for the day the pandemic is over and hoped people would not forget what it had extracted from everyone.

Since he spoke, more than 2,000 more people have died in Oregon.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a top forecaster of the pandemic at the University of Washington, said Friday that the reports will continue past Jan. 1.

It reports that the official worldwide death toll will hit 6.26 million by March 1 — though postmortems in months and years ahead will show deaths at double that number.

In the United States, IHME expects fatalities to reach 880,000 nationwide by that date. When statistics catch up, historians will likely see that deaths in the United States topped 1 million in mid-February.

The flow of reports to Sidelinger’s desk in Oregon each morning won’t stop either. IHME puts the likely official count on March 1 passing 6,400 reported deaths. The real number will eventually be closer to 9,100 after the review of fatalities is done after the pandemic ends.

When that will be, is unknown. The forecast stops at March 1. The list of variants ends for now at omicron.

How many more Greek letters tagged to COVID-19 variants in 2022 is in a future that won’t be known until next year this time.

Whether pandemic will die out — or fires burn, smoke billow, political violence flare — won’t be known until this time next year.

The past three years show that predicting the future of this era of trouble is difficult and often foolish.

Check back next December to find out.

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(2) comments

Transitory Inflation

Yeah, Gary is on the of the best in Oregon. Glad he landed at OCB.


That is one of the best articles I've ever read in the Bulletin. Thank you Gary. I apologize for my username but am currently too lazy to change it.

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