Benton County was scheduled to increase to extreme COVID transmission risk this week for the first time since March, but a last-minute reversal by Gov. Kate Brown means it will no longer have the added restrictions that a higher designation brings.
The announcement also means that Linn County, which was returned to the extreme risk category last week, will be lowered back down to high risk this Friday.
Explaining her decision, Brown said that hospitalizations in Oregon were leveling off and therefore counties that were set to increase no longer need to, and those that already increased will drop back down.
But she also stressed that the pandemic is not over and caseloads are still high in Oregon.
“Let me be clear: Across the state, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still high, and Oregon is not out of the woods yet,” the governor said in a news release. “However, we have met the hospitalization metric established by our health experts for counties to return to high risk.”
The top risk level, which Linn and several other Willamette Valley counties moved to last week, triggers more severe restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. All indoor dining is prohibited, for example, and nearly all kinds of social gatherings are limited to six people maximum. Outdoor recreation is still permitted, though with a limit of 100 individuals.
The governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority have explained that counties can move to a lower risk category if their case numbers drop below a certain level. If Oregon’s total COVID-19 hospitalizations drop below 300 and if the seven-day average of hospitalizations drops below a 15 percent increase, counties may also see their risk levels dropped.
It’s that hospitalization rate that the governor cited as a main reason for reducing county risk levels this week.
“From the beginning, I have said that returning counties to the extreme risk level was about preserving hospital capacity and saving lives,” the governor stated. “With our statewide hospitalization rate stabilizing, our hospitals should have the capacity to continue treating patients with severe cases of COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions in the coming weeks.”
Benton County narrowly staved off moving to extreme risk last week, when Linn and several other counties around the Willamette Valley were moved up. At that point, Oregon’s hospitalization rate was still seen as too high by health officials, so counties with high caseloads were moved to extreme risk.
“Other surrounding counties that had moved up to extreme risk more quickly was as the state hit that (hospitalization) threshold and then those counties were increasing or continuing to increase in caseloads,” said Benton County Health Department communications director Kelly Locey. “It just so happened that Benton County wasn’t quite there. We were increasing and expecting to increase for weeks. … We’d been tracking things closely and expecting to move back up to extreme risk.”
Currently, Benton County’s weekly caseload per 100,000 residents — the metric that the Oregon Health Authority uses to determine county risk levels — is at about 210. Counties normally have to be lower than 200 in order to move back down to high risk or avoid a move to extreme risk.
The last time Benton County was at the extreme risk level was back in March; it had remained at that level for several months during the winter spike in positive cases. Benton County increased to extreme risk on Dec. 18 and wasn’t dropped back down to high risk until March 11.
According to the new state guidance, it’s unlikely that any county will remain in the extreme risk category that long again, as the new orders from Brown place a maximum of three weeks on the highest restriction category.
Another difference between then and now is that every week will include an evaluation period to see if counties qualify to be dropped to a lower risk level. Before, a county that moved up in risk evaluation could expect to remain there for at least two weeks before another evaluation period from the state — a period known as a “movement week.”
“Every week right now is a movement week,” Locey explained. “This latest movement is more to clamp down in order to get this spread under control. If we can reduce it to one week of increased restrictions, that will help get the spread and increased cases under control and help counties get moved back down from extreme risk.”
Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.