It’s been nearly two months since Oregon dropped its indoor mask mandate. Since then, COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County have increased dramatically. But despite that, St. Charles Hospital has reported a low number of hospitalizations.
Due to the increased cases and the availability of a second booster dose, Deschutes County Public Health is continuing to host vaccine clinics throughout the area, including the one on Thursday at the Sisters Library.
People were lined up outside before the doors opened at 1 p.m. Karl Goodwin showed up for his fourth Moderna dose.
“I have asthma pretty bad at times, and it just seemed better to err on the side of getting the booster,” he said.
Goodwin is not the only one still looking for extra protection as a surge of the BA.2 variant continues to boost the case count.
“About 90% of the vaccinations that we’ve been giving within the last few weeks have been that fourth dose,” said Crystal Sully, the Vaccine Coordinator for Deschutes County Public Health. “Over the past four to five weeks, we’ve been giving anywhere between 500 and 675 doses per week.”
That’s opposed to the roughly 1,000 to 1,300 doses the county administered per week when the first booster dose initially became available.
COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County have been steadily rising since a couple of weeks after the state’s indoor mask mandate was dropped on March 12.
The week of March 20-26, there were 97 new COVID-19 cases documented in the county. Last week, May 1-7, there were 590 new cases documented. That’s a 508% increase.
Despite the sharp rise, the makeup of the BA.2 variant has shown vastly different results in hospitalizations.
“It’s much more transmissible, so more people are getting it, but it’s not zapping people as hard,” said St. Charles Hospital Senior Data Scientist Dr. Michael Johnson.
Johnson reported they have seen an increase in the number of patients with COVID-19 coming through the hospital over the past few weeks, but it doesn’t begin to come close to the numbers they saw during the peaks of past variants.
“Our midnight census has been anywhere from 16 to 19 the last couple of days…if this were the delta variant, we should be seeing probably 80 to 90 patients easily in the hospital,” he said.
Though Johnson believes we’ve reached the peak of the BA.2 variant, he anticipates the number of hospitalizations to remain consistent throughout the summer.
“This is a difficult crystal ball to look into, but would surprise me if we didn’t continue for months to have between 10 and 15 patients in the hospital at any given time,” he said. “It’s just a nasty thing, and it’s going to be here for awhile.”
As more beds are empty, the hospital is nearing its pre-pandemic surgery volumes.
“We’re definitely getting more people in the hospital, so we are now running between 12 and 14 operating rooms,” said Lisa Goodman, the hospital’s Public Information Officer. “That’s really good news for the community. There is, we know, pent up demand for surgery and so we’re really excited to be able to get more patients in and get those procedures that they’ve been waiting for for so long.”
Johnson urged the public to help keep hospitalizations low.
“If you’re not feeling well and you have any indication at all that it’s COVID, then stay home,” he said. “When it comes time to get boosted, I would encourage you to get boosted…we’ve seen now that there’s just so little risk, especially if you’ve already been vaccinated.”
Deschutes County Public Health plans to continue their regular clinics through this month, and will then reduce the number of clinics over the summer months.
She said things have also seemed less urgent with this variant because there is more responsibility on the public now to care for their own health, as opposed to having to follow mandates.
“It was so hard in the beginning of the pandemic, because there was so much urgency, but not always really complete information, because we were learning as we went,” Sully said. “Now we have more information and the public has more information, and I think that there’s a thought that the onus is on the public to pay attention to what’s going on, to make their own decisions about wearing a mask, physically distancing, vaccinating themselves.
“We don’t want to get into this struggle, we want this to be collaborative. So I think changing that message to a more collaborative message instead of that mandate-driven message that was frankly really hard for a lot of people…it’s a conscious decision for us to say, let’s be more educational, let’s be more collaborative, and find what brings us together instead of the mandates which really proved to divide a lot of our community.”