Lincoln County’s rate of new COVID-19 cases decreased about 35 percent compared with the previous week — reinforcing hopes of an end to the delta surge — though public health remains wary that a half-unvaccinated population of school children could contribute to community spread.

In an abbreviated version of her weekly report on the pandemic, Interim Lincoln County Health Department Director Florence Pourtal told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners during its regular meeting Wednesday that two key indicators of community spread were moving in the right direction, both locally and statewide.

In Lincoln County, there were 286 new cases per 100,000 residents the seven days ending Sept. 14, down 200 from the previous week, and the percentage of people who tested positive out of the total number tested for the virus dropped to 14.3 after weeks above 20 percent. Both of those metrics would still put the county in the “extreme risk” category under the former emergency guidelines.

“I want to remain cautiously optimistic, just because school has started, and we are going to get inside a little bit more, so we will have to see how that evolves, but this is very encouraging data,” Pourtal said.

One week into classes, there are no signs of classroom spread, though the virus and outbreak-prevention protocols have certainly impacted dozens of students and staff members. According to the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly report published Wednesday, there was a single COVID-19 case each among the student bodies at Yaquina View Elementary, Newport Middle, Newport High, Toledo Junior/Senior High and Siletz Valley Charter School during the first week of school.

In response to the News-Times inquiry regarding the number of students currently required to quarantine or required to quarantine since the beginning of classes, Lincoln County School District Assistant Superintendent Susan Van Liew said in an email, “It is difficult to provide an exact number of exclusions … As some return from their exclusionary period, others may be starting an exclusionary period.” She said the district was working closely with the health department on contract tracing.

During the several days preceding Sept. 7, there was single staff/volunteer case reported at Taft Elementary School, a student case at Crestview Heights and two student cases at Eddyville Charter School. It’s not clear if any of those cases resulted in student quarantines. One student case was reported at Taft High School Aug. 31, a full week prior to first full day of classes.

It’s too soon for a clear indication that local COVID-19 hospitalizations have stabilized, though the number of inpatients in Newport and Lincoln City has dropped in the past two days. Hospital census fluctuates frequently, and capacity depends upon a number of factors other than the number of available beds, such as staffing and intensity of care.

According to data presented Wednesday by Pourtal, Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln City had one more patient than its full capacity for five of the past seven days, possibly due to the treatment of a newborn infant and mother, as was the case during a previous report to commissioners by hospital CEO Lesley Ogden.

“It’s been clear, but it’s definitely continuing, that really, unvaccinated individuals are driving the epidemic and account for the vast majority of hospitalizations,” Pourtal said.

In Lincoln County, the unvaccinated population comprises just 22.2 percent of eligible residents 12 and older, the fourth fewest in the state. Pourtal credited this statistic with local hospitals’ ability to cope with a summer surge that overwhelmed medical facilities in south and central Oregon, where rates of inoculation still remain under 50 percent in some counties.

“We’ve had, and still have, quite a significant case load … and our hospitalizations, even though they’ve increased significantly from what we’ve seen in the past, our hospitals have been able to hold their own and not even be operating in any kind of surge capacity. This is a demonstration of the efficacy of vaccines.”

The county commissioners had no questions for Pourtal after her report, though Commissioner Claire Hall remarked, “None of us can exactly relax, but it is nice, after seeing dramatically climbing numbers for several weeks, to see signs of the curve flattening and a little more breathing room.”

Commissioner Doug Hunt noted he’d received a couple of invitations to make presentations to groups and declined when he found some would be held in person and relatively large.

“I continue to believe the county’s informal policy, or certainly our practice right now, to have remote work when possible, to meet virtually and to limit travel are certainly important steps in trying to limit the spread of the virus,” he said. He encouraged businesses and organizations planning events to keep this in mind.

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