The local COVID pandemic curve has been holding steady in Lincoln County since the beginning of October, though public health expects a rise in cases after the holidays, and while numbers are way down from the August peak that was driven by the Delta variant, cases are much higher than the same time last year, when many additional public health measures were still in place.
“Both in the state and in Lincoln County, we have hit a plateau,” Lincoln County Public Health Director Florence Pourtal told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners during its meeting Tuesday. Prior to the summer surge, the county’s weekly case count dropped to as low as 15. There have been at least 70 per week since Aug. 1.
“I am anticipating an increase in cases post-Thanksgiving gatherings,” Pourtal said. “I hope to be proven wrong, but this is pretty much what we’re planning for.” Currently, the county is holding at about 15 cases per day.
“Just to put things in perspective, when we were at the height of the surge last fall and winter, we were at 15 cases a day,” Pourtal said. Under the public health mandates in place this time last year, the county would have been in the “extreme” risk category, requiring restaurants to switch to takeout and delivery only and reduced capacities in other settings.
Portal made note of the Omicron COVID variant, first identified in South Africa and designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization Nov. 26. It has since been detected in more than 20 countries, and the first case in the United States was confirmed Wednesday in California. Pourtal said researchers were still working to identify how transmissible or severe the variant is compared to other strains, and also determine whether available vaccines are as effective against it.
Omicron has more than 50 mutations, some of which involve spike proteins, which allow the virus to penetrate a cell. Early reports from the doctor who first identified the strain in South Africa were hopeful — no one she’d found infected had been admitted to the hospital or experienced the telltale loss of taste and smell.
However, the World Health Organization warns the severity and transmissibility of the variant are still unclear this early, noting that “preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.”
And the initial cases reported as mild were among university students, a cohort less likely to become severely ill, according to the WHO.
“While we wait, I recommend we do what we know very well how to do,” Pourtal said. “If you’re vaccinated but were not boosted yet, I will remind everybody that anyone 18 or older in Oregon is eligible to get their booster shot if it has been six months since their first series (after the second shot of a two-dose vaccine — it's two months after a Johnson & Johnson dose).”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended boosters for all adults last week, while seniors and vulnerable populations have been eligible for some time. As of Nov. 29, about 10 percent of 20 to 49-year-old Lincoln County residents and 2.5 percent of 18 and 19 year olds had received an “extra” dose, according to health department data.
Pourtal told commissioners the health department would close its vaccine clinic at the Lincoln County Commons after Dec. 17 and move back to a mobile clinic model with a set schedule. They’re currently seeing about 150 people a week at the fairgrounds.
“We don’t think it’s enough for us to hold the fairgrounds, because we are pretty much set up, and nobody else can use it,” Pourtal said. Appointments are still available at the fairgrounds clinic on Dec. 10 and 17. All three vaccines are offered and will continue to be after the shift to mobile, Pourtal said.
Shots are also available at many pharmacies, though they are typically limited to one or two types of vaccine. For a list and links to sign up for a clinic, see the county website at tinyurl.com/53pywzrd.
Less than 20 percent of Lincoln County residents who caught COVID-19 in November were fully vaccinated, and there was an even smaller percentage of breakthrough infections the previous month.
Fifty-two Lincoln County residents have died with COVID-19, an increase of two-thirds during the previous three months, up from 30 at the beginning of September. Part of that increase is due to a data review by the Oregon Health Authority that assigned some previously unreported deaths to the county.
As of Dec. 1, 3,621 Lincoln County residents have tested positive for COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, and 168 have been hospitalized during their illness. Two COVID patients were in Lincoln County hospitals on Wednesday, both in intensive care.