On the first day Deschutes County moved into the lower risk category, opening up bars and restaurants to more people, St. Charles Bend reported a surge of younger patients coming in sicker with COVID-19.
May is turning out to be the third most deadliest month for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, coming in behind the winter surge that occurred in December and January, said Mike Johnson, St. Charles Health System senior data scientist.
“I don’t know one county official or one hospital worker who isn’t horrified by going down to low risk,” said Dr. Cynthia Maree, St. Charles Health System medical director of infection prevention services.
“It’s a real scary reality for us. We don’t feel like we’re past this even though the rest of the nation feels that way. We’re in the middle of a surge, and we’re worried about more people getting sick.”
The hospital reported it has 13.6% of the state’s hospitalized patients for COVID-19, yet Central Oregon only represents 5.9% of the state’s overall population. On Friday, there were 41 COVID-19 patients, of which nine were in the intensive care unit with eight people on a ventilator, according to the St. Charles Bend website.
Statewide the Oregon Health Authority reported 285 people were hospitalized for COVID-19.
Across Deschutes County, COVID-19 is waning, and 60.5% of the U.S. population 18 and older have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in Central Oregon, the virus is still ferocious, spreading among the younger, unvaccinated population, said Maree.
The hospital estimates that there are about 100,000 people in Central Oregon who are not vaccinated yet.
“That’s quite a large pool,” Johnson said. “You add to that, the relaxed mask policy and the slide in our behavior, and we’ll end up with more people in the hospital.”
Nearly all, 97%, of the hospitalized patients with COVID-19 since March at St. Charles were not vaccinated, said Lisa Goodman, St. Charles Health System spokeswoman.
“What we see here is different from what we’re seeing in the rest of the nation,” Goodman said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
With the lowering of the risk level, Deschutes County restaurants and bars, gyms and churches can have up to 50% capacity indoors and indoor full-contact sports are allowed, according to state health guidelines. Retails stores can have up to 75% occupancy indoors.
“Our census numbers are climbing steeply,” Johnson said. “There are all these things. We are recovering; it won’t take much to send us back in risk.”
Almost 1 in 5 patients are ending up in the intensive care unit of the hospital, Johnson said. In fact, the number of patients with COVID-19 that are needing a ventilator now is about as high as it was when the state began experiencing a surge in December and January, he said.
Compounding the rise in hospitalization is the feeling among residents that the end is in sight. Face-covering restrictions were relaxed last week for those fully vaccinated and with the lower risk category, more people can gather indoors.
The rise in cases, is not unexpected, said Dr. Richard Fawcett, Deschutes County Health Services health officer.
“As more people get vaccinated, we are hopeful that cases and subsequent hospitalizations will stabilize and decrease,” Fawcett said. “High case rates and hospitalization rates are concerning and an important reminder of the need to vaccinate our community. We encourage anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated to find a convenient location.”
The best defense is to get vaccinated, said Maree. To find a vaccine in Deschutes County, go to deschutes.org/health/page/covid-19-vaccine.
In Central Oregon, the people who are getting COVID-19 are coming in sicker and younger, but staying a shorter amount of time, according to St. Charles Health System.
“Every month we see the people who come into the emergency department sick with COVID-19, the average age is still decreasing down to an average age of 46 now,” said Maree. “Initially, COVID-19 affected our congregant care settings and older population. Now we’re seeing it spreading rapidly among the community members, particularly the unvaccinated, younger population.”