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Oregon counties face more restrictions as COVID cases rise

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2021, file photo, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown visits the Marion County and Salem Health COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Salem, Ore. Brown said Friday that a third of the state’s counties are at risk of a new wave of restrictions as cases continue to surge. Abigail Dollins/Statesman-Journal via AP, Pool, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Oregon, officials warned Friday that one-third of the state's counties are at risk of increased restrictions — again — including limiting restaurants to outdoor dining only and closing gyms.

“A few weeks ago I came before you to say we are concerned that we would have a fourth surge of COVID-19 in Oregon. Unfortunately today that surge is here,” Gov. Kate Brown said at a news conference. “Right now, in the race between vaccines and variants, the variants are gaining ground and have the upper hand.”

Brown, who anticipates being able to lift most pandemic restrictions and reopen the economy by the end of June if people continue to follow safety measures and get vaccinated, said Oregon is critically close to being overwhelmed.

Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer, said new modelling shows “the rate of transmission surpassed the most pessimistic scenario of three weeks ago.”

"And if that spread continues unabated – our hospitals risk being swamped by virus-stricken patients,” he said.

In early March, the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate was 3.9%. As of Thursday, it was 5.7%.

In addition, Oregon’s COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 39% over the past week and has increased by 109% since the beginning of March. As a result, a couple hospitals are already starting to scale back on elective surgeries.

“That projected level of increased hospitalizations threatens to severely tax our hospitals and risk a return to surge-necessitated practices such as deferring elective procedures,” Sidelinger said.

Officials say the next three weeks are very important in the race between vaccines and variants and in an attempt to slow the spread, it is likely that some counties be forced to implement further restrictions.

Every two weeks state epidemiologists assess each counties' risk levels — extreme, high, moderate and lower — based on COVID-19 spread in the area, and assigns safety measures and restrictions based on that level.

Under the “extreme risk” level, indoor dining, indoor exercise at many gyms and indoor visits at long-term care facilities are prohibited. In addition, social gatherings are limited to six people. Brown said 12 counties, are at risk of reaching this category. Whether or not, and which, counties will move into the “extreme risk” level will be announced next week.

Although there have not been any counties in the highest category for a couple weeks, many have been there at length before. In November Brown announced a statewide two-week “freeze” which limited restaurants and bars to take-out only and close gyms, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities during that period.

Following the freeze, risk levels were implemented. It was not until February when the Portland tri-county area was allowed to reopen indoor dining.

“The good news is, we have vaccines, there is a light at the end of this tunnel," Brown said.

So far, more than one in four Oregonians are fully vaccinated.

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.