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Officials urge vaccination as COVID-19 surge nears

Jackson County reports 47 new cases Tuesday

Jackson County and Josephine County public health officials are urging people to get vaccinated, get a booster shot and keep wearing masks as the U.S. enters into a COVID-19 surge fueled by the omicron variant of the virus.

“Booster doses are providing people additional protection against COVID-19 to reduce the risk of severe illness. We are encouraging all eligible populations to get their booster dose,” said Dr. Jim Shames, health officer for Jackson County Public Health.

All people in Oregon age five and older are eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine. Those 16 and older are eligible for boosters six months after a Moderna or Pfizer two-dose vaccine series or two months after the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Oregon Health & Science University predicts omicron will cause a surge in hospitalizations that will eclipse the summer and fall surge that overloaded Rogue Valley hospitals.

COVID-19 hospitalizations from the summer and fall surge peaked at 1,187 patients across Oregon hospitals Sept. 1. Rogue Valley hospitals canceled all but the most critical surgeries and housed patients in alternate spaces such as operating rooms and emergency departments when they ran out of beds. Exhausted health care workers battled to keep up with the rush of COVID-19 patients.

As overwhelming as that surge was, OHSU is predicting COVID-19 hospitalizations could spike above 3,000 statewide. If a large number of people get booster shots and take other safety precautions, the hospitalization spike could be about 2,000 COVID-19 patients.

Oregon this week has about 350 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, according to Oregon Health Authority data.

All Oregon hospitals combined have 4,800 beds. On Tuesday, 370 beds were open, with the rest filled with non-COVID-19 and COVID-19 patients, OHA data show.

Vaccinations are highly effective at reducing severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, but immunity wanes over time, scientists say.

Vaccines are also somewhat less effective against the omicron variant. But research shows a booster shot offers increased protection against the COVID-19 virus, including the omicron variant.

“While vaccines are less effective against preventing infection with omicron than they were with the original virus, boosters have been shown to prevent symptoms and hospitalizations in the majority of people infected with this new variant,” Villona said. “Lab studies suggest that booster doses benefit us not only by increasing our immune activity, but also broadening it.”

People who haven’t yet been vaccinated should get vaccinated, Shames said.

“We need to have more people fully vaccinated if we want to see life return to normal, have fewer people getting COVID-19 and severe COVID-19, and reduce the stress on our hospital systems. Ultimately, people are choosing to either get COVID-19 or get vaccinated, and getting vaccinated will always be the safer option,” Shames said.

As of Monday, 22,853 Jackson County residents 18 and older still needed to get their first vaccine dose for the county to achieve an 80% vaccination target, health officials said.

Research shows immunity achieved through infection by the virus doesn’t offer as much protection as immunity that comes through vaccination. Vaccination also comes with a much lower risk of illness and death.

COVID-19 vaccinations used in the U.S. do not contain COVID-19 viruses.

Josephine County Public Health officials said the omicron variant may cause less severe illness than previous variants like delta, but it’s highly contagious.

“Even if the early data suggesting that omicron causes less severe disease is true, the sheer massive number of people infected could mean an overwhelming number of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Barbra Villona, Josephine County co-deputy public health officer. “That is a situation that endangers all patients, even those without COVID-19. But if you act now, you can help protect your family and our community."

Villona said residents should prepare for the spread of the variant, which has already been detected in Oregon.

“It takes about two weeks for vaccines and boosters to start to work, so we can't afford to wait and see,” Villona said. “Now is the time."

Jackson County Public Health officials said a combination of wearing masks in public indoor settings, getting vaccinated, staying home when sick, washing hands frequently and getting tested for COVID-19 can increase people’s personal safety and decrease the spread of the virus in the community.

“It will take all the tools we have to fight COVID-19. There isn’t one tool that is 100% effective, which is why we encourage people to take multiple actions to protect themselves and their loved ones. But getting vaccinated continues to be the best tool we have,” said Tanya Phillips, health promotion and preparedness manager for Jackson County Public Health.

On Tuesday, Jackson County reported 47 new COVID-19 cases and three more COVID-19-related deaths.

A 66-year-old man died at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, and an 81-year-old woman and an 81-year-old man died at Providence Medford Medical Center.

Statewide, OHA reported 999 new COVID-19 cases and 25 additional COVID-19-related deaths.

Josephine County reported 20 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday. Information about any new deaths wasn’t immediately available.

On Tuesday, the four hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties were caring for 57 patients with COVID-19. Of those, 16 were in intensive care and six were on ventilators, according to hospitalization data.

For information on where to get vaccinated in Jackson County, see jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/COVID-19/Vaccine-Appointments/where-to get-vaccinated-in-jackson-county.

Visit co.josephine.or.us/COVID19 to schedule a vaccine appointment or for more information. Call the Josephine County COVID-19 Call Center at 541-916-7030 to ask questions, schedule a vaccine appointment, schedule a testing appointment, schedule monoclonal antibody treatment or report a positive home test.

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