‘Get Vaccinated and Get Your Booster’ – Public Health Officials Update Board on Latest COVID-19 Trends

September 1, 2022

With Omicron boosters expected to become widely available after Labor Day, public health leaders are urging eligible groups to get the latest vaccine to reduce the risk of severe disease.

Department of Health officials updated Multnomah County commissioners on the latest trends in COVID-19 on Tuesday, Aug. 30, just as students began to return to the classroom. The transition to fall also marks the beginning of the traditional respiratory illness season in the United States.

The Omicron variant has changed the way healthcare workers respond to COVID-19. With high disease rates and underreporting of cases, the county no longer considers the reported rate of positive cases a reliable indicator. Instead, public health officials rely on hospital data to track disease activity. And they note that intensive care unit admissions and the number of patients on ventilators have largely decreased.

“At a population level, we’re seeing fewer people needing intensive care relative to the number of people who meet the definition of a COVID hospitalization,” said Dr. Jennifer Wein, the county’s health officer.

Chantel Reed, deputy director of the Department of Health’s public health division, said the county’s strategy reflects a new phase of the pandemic: living with the virus and moving away from a large-scale emergency response, with lessons and strategies that can be applied to time of other pandemics and outbreaks.

“The reality is we have to transition to living with COVID in our community,” Reed said. “This will give us the ability to respond to any virus that appears in our community.”

Who dies from COVID-19?

The hospitalization data showed that the waves occurred roughly at two-month intervals, Vines said. The risk of death increases exponentially with age, with the highest rate occurring in older men.

The higher death rate among older men is another reason to improve basic community health through physical activity, nutrition and reducing drug and alcohol use, Vines added.

While the death rate from COVID-19 remains relatively low throughout Omicron, the death rate is highest for people who are not vaccinated. Health officials are urging people to keep up with their boosters to reduce the risk of serious illness.

After Labor Day, Omicron-compliant boosters are expected for everyone 12 and older. The vaccine is expected to be widely available throughout the health system.

“Key point here: Get vaccinated and get your booster,” Vines said.

As of fall, the county’s public health strategy is built around four goals: reducing mortality among residents who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC); detention of children in school; ongoing outbreak responses in high-risk settings; and continued reliance on local epidemiology to inform decision-making.

Commissioner Sharon Meiran asked about mortality among BIPOC residents.

Vines said the state of Oregon has stopped conducting intensive case investigations in 2021, which limits reliable data on race and ethnicity for COVID-19 cases.

“It’s going to be imperfect, but there’s more analysis coming from our (epidemiology) team on this, knowing it’s of interest,” Vince said.

Keeping children safe at school

Once students return to the classroom, back-to-school safety is among the district’s top priorities. Encouraging vaccinations and masking among schoolchildren is part of the strategy to stabilize cases.

The state’s threshold for an outbreak is 30 percent absences or a cohort — such as an entire kindergarten classroom — plus a confirmed case of COVID-19 among those children who are outside. This triggers a notification to parents, which may include masking guidelines, testing information and mitigation measures.

Commissioner Lori Stegman asked if schools required students to wear masks or be vaccinated.

In response, Reed indicated that universal masking would not be enforced. Rather, it will happen on a case-by-case basis depending on the school.

School employees must still self-isolate for at least five days at home if they are infected with COVID-19, and even after five days they can only return after being fever-free for 24 hours. There are currently no quarantine requirements for children or adults who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The Office of Communicable Diseases has a dedicated team to deal with epidemics with permanent contact in schools and childcare facilities, as well as specialists in pediatric diseases. The team meets regularly with schools to provide guidance on disease prevention and mitigation.

Commissioner Sushila Jayapal asked if masks might be mandatory for students in the future.

“If there’s a new variant that’s heavier or somehow harder on kids, that’s a game changer,” Toews said.

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