With COVID-19 no longer posing a public health crisis, state health officials announced recently that they are shifting resources away from tracking the disease toward other priorities, including monkeypox.
Officials from the Oregon Health Authority said they will no longer publish daily COVID data, and they indicated the virus is likely to become “endemic” like the common flu, mutating as it travels among people and around the world.
“We already are experiencing conditions consistent with an endemic, in which the disease continues to circulate in communities, although at very low levels and without causing the significant disruptions to our lives that we saw in 2020 and 2021,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, told the Capital Chronicle in an email.
The Oregon Health Authority has reduced the frequency it publishes COVID data. New cases and deaths are now being reported weekly, instead of daily. The number of vaccinations will be released monthly, instead of weekly. A new dashboard will display information previously in the Breakthrough Case Report and will show trends in cases, hospitalizations and deaths by vaccination status over time.
Sidelinger said COVID-19, which killed 6,850 people in Oregon, continues to mutate. He said it’s difficult to predict the severity of future variants and their transmissibility. COVID hospitalizations and deaths have continued falling since March, when the state lifted most mask mandates. Cases have fallen as well. In mid-August, the state counted about 820 new cases a day. That fell to 495 a day last week.
“This continues to track the trends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting nationally,” Sidelinger said in an online news conference.
A total of 69,400 updated booster doses have arrived in Oregon, and officials are distributing them to pharmacies, tribal health clinics, hospitals, providers, clinics and state-run vaccination sites, Sidelinger said. The state expects to receive another 150,000 doses of the shots, made by Pfizer and Moderna.
The shots are designed to fight the original strain of the virus along with the two most infectious omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are responsible for the majority of recent COVID infections.
“We are hopeful the new boosters will welcome yet another, positive new phase in the pandemic in which COVID-19 vaccinations become an annual thing, much like flu shots, and we manage the virus as something we expect to always be a part of our lives,” Sidelinger wrote.
Eighty-two percent of adults in Oregon have received at least one vaccination, according to Oregon Health Authority data. About 48 percent of adults have received a booster. Sidelinger said 2.7 million people in Oregon qualify for the updated shot.
You have to be at least 12 years old to receive the updated Pfizer booster and 18 for the Moderna shot. There also need to be at least two months between the last COVID vaccine and the booster. Sidelinger said the state will be able to vaccine everyone who wants a shot.
“There will be enough boosters for everyone this fall,” Sidelinger said.
Health officials are bracing for a potential spike in COVID cases this fall as people gather inside, along with an uptick in respiratory viruses. Sidelinger also said he expects a “rigorous” flu season, based on patterns in the southern hemisphere where influenza hits first.
Sidelinger said flu hospitalizations in Australia have been much higher this year than last.
The use of masks and social distancing have capped flu infections since the pandemic hit.
Rise in monkeypox cases
In the news conference, Sidelinger reported that 179 people in Oregon have confirmed or suspected monkeypox infections. Sidelinger said eight counties are affected, with five cases in Clackamas County, two in Columbia County, one case in Coos County, 21 in Lane County, two in Marion County, 127 in Multnomah County, one in Union County and 20 in Washington County.
Monkeypox resembles smallpox, though it is usually less severe. It spreads through close, prolonged and often skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash. Lesions, one of the hallmarks of the disease, usually start on the face and spread to the limbs. They remain infectious until the scabs fall off.
Prior to this year, it was not common in the U.S., though it was seen in other parts of the world.
This month, the health authority began reporting more detailed data on monkeypox, including gender identity and sexual orientation. Sidelinger said this will help the health authority in its goal of ensuring equal access to health care.
“A critical component to meeting this goal is ensuring meaningful access to services for everyone in Oregon, regardless of their race, ethnicity, language, disability, or sexual orientation and gender identity,” Sidelinger said during the press conference.
The state’s website lists 112 of those infected as gay, 10 as queer, nine as “same gender or same-sex loving,” eight as bisexual and seven as straight. The state also reported that 136 of those infected are males. The virus has also infected women and at least one child. The virus has also affected the transgender community, but no details were released.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved one vaccine against monkeypox, which is made by a Danish company. It has faced difficulty meeting worldwide demand. In response, the Biden administration encouraged states to change the way the vaccine is injected to stretch supplies and reach more people.