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Commissioners want state to rethink COVID-19 risk categories

Jackson County commissioners want the state to reevaluate COVID-19 risk level criteria that have kept the county stuck in the extreme category despite falling hospitalizations and rising vaccination rates.

Many business owners and residents were disappointed when Gov. Kate Brown announced last week that Jackson County and 13 other counties would remain in the extreme risk category until at least Feb. 25.

If Jackson County cases keep falling and the area can improve to the high risk category, restaurants can resume indoor dining, nursing homes can offer indoor visits and gyms could have more people inside. Restaurants and gyms would still face capacity limits.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said the metrics the state uses to judge risk are outdated.

The state looks at case counts plus the percent of COVID-19 tests that come back positive in assessing county risk levels.

Dyer said the risk from COVID-19 is being mitigated as more people become vaccinated, but state regulations are still placing a heavy burden on businesses and residents.

“When you mitigate risk, you should reduce those burdens commensurately,” he said.

Dyer said Oregonians were told they had to accept restrictions in order to avoid overwhelming hospitals with COVID-19 patients. He said the number of hospitalized people has been dropping.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 peaked Dec. 19 at 85 in Jackson and Josephine counties, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The number has since dipped to 21, Jackson County Public Health reported Tuesday.

Josephine County also remains in the extreme risk category based on its case counts.

To advance into the high risk category, Jackson County would have to have 200 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over a two-week period. The county logged 260 cases per 100,000 people during the previous measuring window.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said the state’s rules that have kept the county in the extreme risk category are harmful. She said they’re discriminatory toward certain businesses. Large grocery stores can have many people inside, but restaurants can’t offer indoor dining, she noted.

Roberts said she wants the state to undertake a rigorous and immediate reevaluation of how it assesses county risk levels.

At least 23,854 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Jackson County, according to state data that lags behind actual vaccinations.

Commissioners are still holding out hope Jackson County can move to the high risk category at the next opportunity.

The current measuring window for cases is from Feb. 7 through this coming Saturday.

Based on its population of about 221,500 people, Jackson County needs to stay at 443 cases or fewer over the two-week measuring period in order to move to the high risk category.

The county had 245 cases so far from Feb. 7 through Tuesday, according to Jackson County data.

The county logged 576 cases during the previous two-week measuring window, according to OHA.

The governor’s next announcement on county risk levels will be Tuesday, Feb. 23, and any changes would take effect Friday, Feb. 26.

Dyer said Thursday that Medford City Council will consider whether to join with the county commissioners in asking the state to reconsider its criteria for county risk levels.

He said The Chamber of Medford & Jackson County has already indicated its support.

The commissioners hope to form a coalition with Medford City Council and the chamber of commerce and send a joint letter Friday to the governor.

The state’s current risk categories are extreme (14 counties), high (11 counties), moderate (three counties) and lower (eight counties), according to OHA.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.