OSU to test hundreds of wild animal species for virus responsible for COVID-19

Researchers at Oregon State University are looking at whether SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, can be found wild animals.

The goal of this two-year study is to learn if wild mammal species can hold and transmit COVID. Researchers are testing about 1,600 wild animals.

If any of those tests come back positive, the next step is to determine if the virus has been spreading from animal to animal.

“There is some evidence in the midwestern states that the source coronavirus has been spreading through white-tailed deer populations. So there’s the potential that the virus could be spreading within different types of deer populations or elk populations. So we are interested in looking at that,” said Dr. Brian Dolan, Associate Professor at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

In addition to deer and elk, the research team also plans to test bats and other wild mammals that often come into contact with humans. They have just received $1 million in funding from the USDA and are working on the best way to collect samples.

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Here is the full announcement from OSU:

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Backed by a new cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, researchers at Oregon State University will soon begin testing approximately 1,600 wild animal specimens for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Researchers in OSU’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine want to learn which animal species can harbor and transmit the virus to better predict future zoonotic disease outbreaks, where a pathogen jumps from animals into humans.

They will also be sequencing the full viral genome of SARS-CoV-2 whenever they find it to determine if the strain is related to recent COVID variants that have spread among humans or if it has evolved and spread independently through an animal reservoir.

“There’s always the potential for the virus to establish itself within an animal species permanently, and if that happens, there’s potential for it to be passed around among wild animals and then later spill over into humans,” said Brian Dolan, an associate professor of immunology in OSU’s veterinary college and the lead investigator on the grant.

He said that’s an unlikely scenario, but it would have disastrous implications.

“The reason we’re doing this is that as SARS-CoV-2 transmits among animal species, it could start evolving along its own trajectory and result in a virus that’s sufficiently distinct from the COVID variants currently circulating in humans,” he said. “That would be like a reset of the whole thing.”

It’s more likely that variants circulating among animals will become less capable of infecting humans as they evolve, but Dolan says it’s not worth taking the chance of the opposite outcome.

“While it’s rare, when it does happen, it’s really bad,” he said. “It’s worth keeping an eye on it, to see what’s going on.”

Dolan will work closely with the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory housed at Oregon State. The diagnostic lab tests agricultural and wildlife animal samples for infectious diseases, and in April 2020, began testing human samples for COVID-19, filling a crucial gap in the early days of the pandemic.

“From my standpoint, this project re-emphasizes the ‘one health’ mission of the lab: We don’t deal only with diseases that affect only nonhuman animals; we do lots of work that directly relates to public health,” said Kurt Williams, director of the diagnostic lab.

The research will focus more on wild animal species that may come into contact with humans, such as rodents and bats, as opposed to domestic or livestock animals because existing surveillance measures can detect the spread of SARS-CoV-2 among those groups, Dolan said. He’s partnering with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and wildlife rehabilitators throughout the state for this work.

The two-year, nearly $1 million cooperative agreement provides funding for lab technicians to add SARS-CoV-2 tests to testing panels they’re already conducting on animal samples that have been submitted to Fish and Wildlife or the diagnostic lab for other reasons. The project will only test mammals, no birds or reptiles, as mammals are the most likely animals to be infected, Dolan said.

“It’s a good investment to start looking at these human-wild animal interfaces and monitoring these sorts of diseases,” Dolan said. “It may not result in diseases that enter the human population or spread among humans, but for the relatively small investment of monitoring, we’re much better prepared to deal with it.”

▶️ Jefferson Co. students who missed this tradition due to pandemic get do-over

Sometimes, you don’t realize how much a tradition means to you until it’s gone.

“That was what I looked forward to most of middle school and I was pretty bummed that I missed out on it,” senior Allison Skeels said.

At Jefferson County Middle School, graduates have the privilege of leaving their mark year after year: a handprint frozen in time left on the wall of the hallways for everyone to see.

“Looking through all those hands on the walls, you know, I was really like, ‘Wow, I’m excited to put my hand on there,'” Madras senior Esteban Pacheco said. “You know, My brothers went there, and they put their hands. Now it’s my turn, you know?”

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But in 2020, the pandemic hit, and the students never returned to class, meaning they never got their chance to do what so many other classes had done before them.

“In my head, you know, the realization like, ‘Wow. I never really got to put my hand on the wall, and that’s when it hit me,” Pacheco said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really pretty, pretty upset.'”

As every year passed, the students started to think it wouldn’t happen. Now that the middle school class is getting ready to graduate high school, the kids returned to their old stomping ground to finish the long-running tradition.

“It was fun,” Skeels said. “It was nice to finally see my hand on the wall against all of my friends. And then we saw our eighth-grade pictures on the wall and I went back and looked at my older sisters and it was just kind of nostalgic.”

Since the students are seniors, their handprints are much bigger than the others. But to the seniors, they say they are just leaving a bigger mark.

“I want other middle schoolers to know and ask themselves why are their hands so different from ours and get surprised when somebody tells them the story,” said Pacheco. 

More than 50 students from this forgotten class now have their legacy solidified in the hallways, finally experiencing the tradition first-hand.

Say goodbye to the COVID-19 vaccination card. CDC has stopped printing them.

It’s the end of an era for a once-critical pandemic document: The ubiquitous white COVID-19 vaccination cards are being phased out.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are not being distributed by the federal government, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stopped printing new cards.

The federal government shipped more than 980 million cards between late 2020, when the first vaccines came out, through May 10, according to the latest available data from the CDC.

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Federal and local health officials don’t expect the discontinuation of the cards to be a particularly big change, since the days of keeping them tucked in purses and wallets to ensure entry into festivals, bars and restaurants are largely over. If you’ve held on to your card, it’s still valid as proof of vaccination. Otherwise, people who need their COVID-19 immunization records will need to request them just like any other vaccine.

In many cases, the clinic, pharmacy or health department that provided the shot can provide those records. Every state and some cities have an immunization registry, though rules vary on when records are included and options for obtaining copies of your records. Records from the mass vaccination sites held early in the pandemic also should be available in those registries, depending on state laws. There is no national registry for immunization records.

For example, Texas requires patients’ written consent to be included in the registry, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District spokesman David Andres Alegria said. Other places, including Wyoming and Philadelphia’s city-specific record system, require vaccine providers to log all vaccinations.

Many states offer digital vaccination records for individuals either online or through an app. Users can save a certificate or a QR code that proves they are vaccinated. And some websites will even track and alert patients when they’re due for another one.

“One of the positives (during the pandemic) was having increased autonomy on your patient record, especially the immunization record,” said Jeff Chorath, who manages the immunization information system in Washington state. Washington offers two digital options for obtaining vaccination records — a comprehensive list of all of a person’s vaccinations noted in the state database and one specific to COVID-19 vaccines.

Other states don’t have the same options, so it might take longer to get your records. There could also be gaps in state databases; for example, if you were vaccinated by a federal health provider, those records may be tracked in a separate system.

As for your old card — if you still have it — maybe don’t mail it off to the Smithsonian quite yet. You should save it like any other health record, Wyoming Department of Health nurse consultant Heidi Gurov said.

“It’s always good to keep those in a safe spot,” she said.

Four million people in the U.S. have received the latest COVID-19 vaccine since it was approved last month, CDC director Dr. Mandy Cohen said Wednesday, and a total of 10 million doses have been shipped to providers.

▶️ Health officials urging COVID, flu and RSV vaccines as fall begins

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is urging Oregonians to get this year’s flu vaccine, the updated COVID-19 vaccine, and, for adults 60 years or older, the RSV vaccine.

While the flu and RSV shots are available, pharmacies are struggling to get ahold of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“COVID vaccines are not widely available in our community at this time. They were recently commercialized so there’s a change and a whole new system. So we need to be a little bit patient for sufficient vaccine to be in our community,” Emily Horton with the Deschutes County Health Department said.

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Kevin Russell, Director of Pharmacy at Prescryptive Pharmacy in Redmond, says the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to hit shelves next week.

“The end of the month is when we will start seeing it in the pharmacies. As soon as it comes in, we can start administering it,” Russell said.

Russell says all three vaccines are safe to take at the same time.

“If you want to cut down on the side effects you may experience for a day or two after it, you may want to space particularly the COVID vaccine about two weeks away from the other vaccines to minimize side effects,” Russell said.

The OHA says the RSV vaccine is only for adults 60 years or older. Another form of that vaccine for babies and toddlers will be released later this fall.

The Deschutes County Health Department says it will provide targeted clinics, administering all three shots. The department says these clinics are only for those who are vulnerable, under-represented and uninsured.

Biden administration announces $600 million to produce COVID tests

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is providing $600 million in funding to produce new at-home COVID-19 tests and is restarting a website allowing Americans to again order up to four free tests per household — aiming to prevent possible shortages during a rise in coronavirus cases that has typically come during colder months.

The Department of Health and Human Services says orders can be placed at COVIDTests.gov starting Sept. 25, and that no-cost tests will be delivered for free by the United States Postal Service.

Twelve manufacturers that employ hundreds of people in seven states have been awarded funding and will produce 200 million over-the-counter tests to replenish federal stockpiles for government use, in addition to producing enough tests to meet demand for tests ordered online, the department said. Federal officials said that will help guard against supply chain issues that sparked some shortages of at-home COVID tests made overseas during past surges in coronavirus cases.

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Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said the website will remain functional to receive orders through the holidays and “we reserve the right to keep it open even longer if we’re starting to see an increase in cases.”

“If there is a demand for these tests, we want to make sure that they’re made available to the American people for free in this way,” O’Connell said. “But, at this point, our focus is getting through the holidays and making sure folks can take a test if they’re going to see Grandma for Thanksgiving.”

The tests are designed to detect COVID variants currently circulating, and are intended for use by the end of the year. But they will include instructions on how to verify extended expiration dates, the department said.

The initiative follows four previous rounds where federal officials and the U.S. Postal Service provided more than 755 million tests for free to homes nationwide.

It is also meant to complement ongoing federal efforts to provide free COVID tests to long-term care facilities, schools, low-income senior housing, uninsured individuals and underserved communities which are already distributing 4 million per week and have distributed 500 million tests to date, the department said.

O’Connell said manufacturers would be able to spread out the 200 million tests they will produce for federal use over 18 months. That means that, as demand for home tests rises via the website or at U.S. retailers when COVID cases increase around the country, producers can focus on meeting those orders — but that they will then have an additional outlet for the tests they produce during period when demand declines.

“We’ve seen every winter, as people move indoors into heated spaces, away from the outside that, over each of the seasons that COVID’s been a concern, that we have seen cases go up,” O’Connell said.

She added that also “there’s always an opportunity or chance for another variant to come” but “we’re not anticipating that.”

“That’s not why we’re doing this,” O’Connell said. “We’re doing this for the fall and winter season ahead and the potential for an increase in cases as a result.”

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the “Biden-Harris Administration, in partnership with domestic manufacturers, has made great strides in addressing vulnerabilities in the U.S. supply chain by reducing our reliance on overseas manufacturing.”

“These critical investments will strengthen our nation’s production levels of domestic at-home COVID-19 rapid tests and help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Becerra said in a statement.

Updated COVID-19 vaccine announced; Should be available this week

Most Americans should get an updated COVID-19 vaccine, health officials said Tuesday.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the new shots for everyone 6 months and older and the agency’s director quickly signed off Tuesday on the panel’s recommendation. That means doses should be available this week, some as early as Wednesday.

The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic has faded, but there are still thousands of hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths in the U.S. each week. Hospitalizations have been increasing since late summer, though the latest data indicate infections may be starting to level off, particularly in the South.

Still, experts worry that immunity from previous vaccinations and infections is fading in many people, and a new shot would save many lives.

According to a survey last month that CDC cited, about 42% said they would definitely or probably get the new vaccine. Yet only about 20% of adults got an updated booster when it was offered a year ago.

Doctors hope enough people get vaccinated to help avert another “tripledemic” like last year when hospitals were overwhelmed with an early flu season, an onslaught of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and yet another winter coronavirus surge.

Here is what you need to know about the new COVID-19 shots:

Who should get the updated vaccine?

The Food and Drug Administration approved the updated shots from Pfizer and Moderna for adults and children as young as age 6 months. FDA said starting at age 5, most people can get a single dose even if they’ve never had a prior COVID-19 shot. Younger children might need additional doses depending on their history of COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.

The CDC decides how best to use vaccines and makes recommendations for U.S. doctors and the general public. The agency’s panel of outside exerts recommended the updated COVID-19 shots by a vote of 13-1. The no vote came from a panel member who had argued that the new shots should initially be recommended only for older people and others at greatest risk of severe illness. But other panel members said all ages could — and should — benefit.

“We need to make vaccination recommendations as clear as possible,” said one panel member, Dr. Camille Kotton, an infectious diseases doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Where can I get a shot?

The new vaccine will be available at pharmacies, health centers and some doctor offices. Locations will be listed on the government’s vaccines.gov website. The list price of a dose of each shot is $120 to $130, according to the manufacturers. But federal officials said the new COVID-19 shots still will be free to most Americans through private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. For the uninsured or underinsured, the CDC is working with health departments, clinics and certain pharmacies to temporarily provide free shots.

On Tuesday, a Pfizer official said his company expected to have doses available at some U.S. locations as early as Wednesday.

Why more COVID-19 shots?

Similar to how flu shots are updated each year, the FDA gave COVID-19 vaccine makers a new recipe for this fall. The updated shots have a single target, an omicron descendant named XBB.1.5. It’s a big change. The COVID-19 vaccines offered since last year are combination shots targeting the original coronavirus strain and a much earlier omicron version, making them very outdated.

Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax all have brewed new supplies, and the FDA on Monday approved shots from Pfizer and Moderna. Novavax’s updated vaccine is still under review.

Will they be effective enough?

Health officials are optimistic, barring a new mutant. As expected, XBB.1.5 has faded away in the months it took to tweak the vaccine. Today, there is a soup of different coronavirus variants causing illness and the most common ones are fairly close relatives. Recent lab testing from vaccine makers and other research groups suggest the updated shots will offer crossover protection.

Earlier vaccinations or infections have continued to help prevent severe disease and death but protection wanes over time, especially against milder infections as the virus continually evolves. The FDA did allow seniors and others at high risk to get an extra booster dose last spring. But most Americans haven’t had a vaccination in about a year.

Can I get a flu shot and covid-19 shot at the same time?

Yes. The CDC says there is no difference in effectiveness or side effects if people get those vaccines simultaneously, although one in each arm might be more comfortable. The CDC urges a yearly flu shot for pretty much everyone ages 6 months and up. The best time is by the end of October.

▶️ Statewide fall sports participation numbers surpassing pre-pandemic levels

High School sports in Oregon took a brutal hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Oregon Schools Activities Association data shows kids are not only returning to play, but participation is some of the highest ever.

“I think it was hard on us all mentally,” said La Pine senior football player Deakon Looney. “It was hard to get … the drive to go to practice every day while wearing masks and being worried about that at the same time worrying about football and all our games being pushed back or canceled even.”

While other athletes decided not to participate in athletics during the pandemic, Looney spent his first two years in high school playing football through the uncertainty that was COVID-19 and sports.

Statewide, high school participation numbers aren’t just rebounding from the pandemic but surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

According to the OSAA the number of kids participating in fall sports in the 2019-20 school year was around 37,000.

During the pandemic, those numbers dropped to 29,000 in 2020-21 and 35,000 last year.

This fall sports year, the number of athletes participating is over 38,000.

“The social distancing and the doing school from home,” said head La Pine football coach Brandon Tirrill. “I think that was taxing for them, where they are itching to come out be a part of the community, part of a school, and part of a team as well.”

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La Pine High School is approaching its pre-pandemic athletic number at around 130.

Tirill and head volleyball coach Heather Calkins say they’ve both seen an increase in athletes in their programs, attributing the increase in numbers to the revitalization of youth sports programs in the community.

“Being able to get them out and playing together again, I think, is boosting that confidence, getting some girls coming out,” said Calkins. “Even some first-year girls that we’ve had this year, which is not super common. So, some first-year girls that didn’t get to play during those years are coming out and participating in the program.”

Crook County is following that statewide trend.

They have over 200 kids out for fall sports, the most in the last four years.

“The board chose to remove pay-to-participate fees from the middle school, and now the middle school numbers are booming, and now those numbers are coming every year to the high school,” said Athletic Director for Crook County High School Rob Bonner.


▶️ Bend rock climbing club sends 6 kids to national competition

Participation in sports like baseball and football is on the decline, but when it comes to bouldering and rock climbing, they’re on the rise.

“It’s just kind of exploded exponentially in the last ten years it seems like,” said avid Terrebonne rock climber Kyle Stevens.

Stevens scales up Smith Rock twice a week.

“It takes you places that you probably wouldn’t go normally if you weren’t super into rock climbing and seeing amazing sights,” Stevens said. “That is what I love about it.”

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Stevens says his journey started 12 years ago, climbing indoors with his friends at Oregon State. Now, a new generation is riding the wave of the popular sport and doing it very well.

“Over time, learning technique, learning to climb in different ways, and my coaches have helped me progress from getting pretty close to last on competitions to getting first and second,” said top rope competitor with the Bend Endurance Academy, Coby Smith.

Bend Endurance Academy is sending six athletes from its climbing program to the USA Climbing Youth National Championships.

“They are going to Salt Lake for almost nine days,” said Climbing Program Director at the Bend Endurance Academy Cate Beebe. “So, a good chunk of time competing, and they will be competing against the top 50 kids in their category, in the entire country.”

Some climbers are competing on the big stage for the first time, while others like Nathaniel Perullo are competing in nationals for the 6th time.

“It was really unique,” said Perullo, a lead and bouldering competitor at the Bend Endurance Academy. “I loved it when I first got into it when I was seven or eight years old. I have been doing it for about seven years now, and I don’t know, I just loved it.”

A sport that has captured the attention of indoor competitors and outdoor climbing explorers alike.

“It’s one of the sports where it’s challenging,” Stevens said. “It is not just going to the gym and lifting heavy things and putting them back down. You are actually physically and mentally pushing yourself, kind of to the limit.”

The popularity is evident when you look at the numbers. Here in the U.S., there are nearly 500 rock climbing facilities.

As far as outdoor climbing is concerned more than ten million people participate in that sport every year.

▶️ Trinity Lutheran Car Show brings in hundreds after COVID hiatus

The Trinity Lutheran Car Show returned following a multi-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spectators viewed the car show Saturday at Trinity Lutheran Church and School.

“Thrilled to be able to put an event on like that for Trinity (Lutheran) to invite the community to our campus and to be part of, you know, what we’re doing here, you know, and just again, just walk around and see some of the hard work that people put into building their hot rods and there are some just amazing, amazing cars here,” said car show committee chair James Bird.

Proceeds will support the Central Oregon Veterans Ranch and Central Oregon Veterans Outreach.

Hundreds of people were there to see the different cars, and folks voted for their favorite and had a chance to win a classic car through a drawing.

Organizers are expecting the event to continue throughout the years.

▶️ More Oregon COVID-19 pandemic rules to end beginning Thursday

The Oregon Health Authority has released a list of changes that will be happening when the national COVID-19 public health emergency ends on Thursday.

The changes include an end to healthcare worker and teacher vaccination requirements and the end of the recommended 5-day isolation period for those who contract COVID. Oregon dropped the requirement for masks at health care facilities last month.

Here are more specifics from OHA:

Vaccination requirements

Effective Thursday (May 11), workers in health care settings will no longer be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 under state rules, OHA announced today. A similar vaccination requirement for teachers and school staff in private and public education settings will lift June 17, the end of the last week of school, to support consistency in student instruction through this school year.

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Exposure, isolation guidance

A five-day period of isolation for those infected with COVID-19 also will no longer be recommended for the general population, including people in K-12 education settings. Oregon public health officials believe widespread population immunity due to vaccination and repeated infections means many COVID-19 infections are now likely asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and the five-day isolation period is doing little to reduce transmission.

Instead, officials say, the recommendation for the general population will be to stay home until fever free for 24 hours and symptoms are improving; avoid contact with individuals at increased risk for severe disease, including older adults and those with underlying medical conditions; and consider masking for 10 days.

School testing

Diagnostic testing resources for students and staff with symptoms or exposure to COVID-19 in schools will remain available through July 31, 2024. iHealth self-tests will remain available for K-12 schools to request and distribute to their school communities until current stock is depleted. Weekly opt-in “screening” testing for K-12 students and staff without COVID-19 symptoms will end July 31 as funding for the effort wraps up.

The endings of the vaccination, isolation and some testing measures are among a spate of impending changes over the coming weeks as Oregon, and the nation, continue the long, careful transition out of the pandemic. A number of “flexibilities” put in place during the pandemic will remain in effect.

The following are among the COVID-era activities and requirements that will continue after May 11:

    • An extension of a 90-day “reasonable opportunity period” for non-citizens to verify citizenship or immigration status to 180 days so they can enroll in Oregon Health Plan (OHP).
    • A requirement that OHP providers, including coordinated care organizations, continue to cover COVID-19 vaccinations and treatment without cost sharing, and that commercial health insurers cover vaccinations without cost sharing. In Oregon, vaccinations are covered no matter where someone gets a shot. Oregonians should contact their health care provider about where they can get vaccinated.
    • A requirement that Oregon health care providers be reimbursed for language interpreter services (spoken or signed) provided during an office visit.
    • A requirement that OHP providers offer access to telehealth services.
    • In addition, state officials are currently implementing previously announced changes in access to Medicaid coverage and other human services programs administered by the state and federal governments.

The following are among many other changes taking effect May 11:

COVID-19 reporting

    • A change in how OHA monitors COVID-19. Epidemiologists will transition to a more sustainable and effective model that focuses on measures that indicate transmission, and continue monitoring for severe outcomes, including hospitalizations and death. Case data, which is based on individual laboratory test reporting and is heavily biased, will be retired. The changes align with CDC recommendations and mirror how influenza is monitored.
    • A change in how OHA reports COVID-19 data. Epidemiologists will streamline data reporting to a smaller number of dashboards updated weekly. Data visualizations will include graphs showing statewide percent positivity, wastewater levels and trends, distribution of variants, hospitalization rates and capacity, death counts, emergency department visit and vaccination trends. Dashboards with case counts and county data will be archived.

Health coverage, supports

    • The end of extended health coverage, services and supports for people with disabilities and older adults, and extra food benefits that were provided during federal emergency. Continuous coverage for Medicaid also is ending. Oregon began a “redetermination” process April 1 to help people renew their OHP membership and other Medicaid benefits, and stay on the plan, and is encouraging members to keep mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses current to ensure they receive information about their benefits in the coming months. More information about the renewals process and options for updating contact information is at oregon.gov/oha/phe. Those with questions can reach out to the ONE Customer Service Center at 800-699-9075 (TTY 711) from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pacific Time, Monday through Friday.