With Oregon exceeding 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations this week, the ‘extreme risk’ designation is back in play for Klamath County.
On Friday, the county will move into the most restrictive category, which prohibits indoor dining and reduces capacity at most other indoor businesses. But Gov. Kate Brown’s office said they are tweaking the rules with the intention of minimizing the economic impact of the closures.
“I recognize the burden these restrictions place on Oregon businesses and working families,” Brown said. “My goal is to lift these restrictions as soon as it is safely possible, and keep Oregon on the path for lifting most health and safety requirements by the end of June so we can fully reopen our economy.”
Citing the spread of more contagious and/or lethal COVID-19 variants in Oregon and the fact that not enough people have been vaccinated yet to reach herd immunity, where the risk of producing additional virus variants is lower, Brown said the return to ‘extreme risk’ designation is necessary to avoid overwhelming the state’s hospital staff.
Over the past two weeks, Klamath County logged 787.5 cases per 100,000 people, well above the 200-case threshold to trigger ‘extreme risk’, and 12.9% test positivity — the highest in the state, exceeding the 10% extreme threshold.
Locally, Sky Lakes Medical Center has reported between eight and 12 patients in its COVID-19 isolation unit over the past several weeks, more than double the rate in February and early March. The unit can hold up to 16 people, after which the hospital will have to reopen a second unit. Patient ages and lengths of stay have not changed from the winter’s surge.
But Brown made some concessions in her policy, aiming to help businesses whether the storm better during this latest shutdown.
Instead of remaining in risk categories for two weeks before having a chance to move, each county’s new cases per 100,000 and test positivity, along with the statewide hospital metric, will be evaluated weekly. That will give Klamath County more opportunities to get its cases under control and move into a less restrictive category.
Counties will remain in ‘extreme risk’ for no longer than three weeks, according to the Governor’s office. They said they hope to lift most major COVID-related regulations and restrictions by the end of June.
The governor also announced $20 million in additional aid for commercial rent relief for businesses in ‘extreme risk’ counties.
Informed by new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control emphasizing that transmission of COVID-19 is significantly reduced outdoors, Governor Brown also doubled the ‘extreme risk’ capacity for outdoor bars, restaurants and other establishments from 50 to 100 people.
“We know that the risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower outdoors. I am urging all Oregonians, if you choose to gather with others, keep it outdoors. Indoor transmission is a key driver in the COVID-19 surge that is making renewed health and safety restrictions necessary,” Brown said.
Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty Morris said she had initially welcomed the additional hospital capacity requirement as the trigger for ‘extreme risk,’ but she didn’t expect the state to exceed it so quickly. It essentially delayed the county’s move to a higher risk category.
“I thought we were done with ‘extreme risk’,” she said. “The fact that, in a few weeks, those numbers went up dramatically and the state blew through that metric was very surprising to me and also disappointing.”
All three Klamath County Commissioners co-signed a letter from the Association of Oregon Counties urging Brown to reconsider bringing the ‘extreme risk’ designation back. They said no major COVID-19 outbreaks have been connected to hospitality businesses and that the overall risk for the disease is less than it was over the winter.
“We must all admit a documented case today does not carry with it the same weight as a documented case in the Fall when so many of our fellow Oregonians lacked access to vaccine treatment,” the letter read. “The variants are indeed troublesome, and we share your concern for their spread. But shutting down our restaurants and further depriving Oregonians of their right to make calculated community engagement risks will not result in success.”
County leaders also said restaurants and bars are being unfairly regulated in comparison to places like grocery stores.
“You must know restrictions on specific types of businesses compared to others within our local communities is creating rifts and dividing people rather than bringing Oregonians together,” the letter read.
Minty Morris said she hopes the next four to eight weeks will be the last Klamath County has to deal with business closures, and that help is available for businesses while those rules are in effect. Details of the additional $20 million have yet to be nailed down, but she said the county has money from the American Rescue Plan that it intends to give to struggling businesses. The Small Business Administration also has a restaurant revitalization fund that interested business owners can inquire about.
The county is also eager to help hospitality businesses adapt to the closures over the next several weeks, whether through temporary policies or through targeted grants to purchase additional infrastructure to comply with state regulations.
“I welcome any business (that) has thoughts on what would help them effectively increase outdoor capacity and/or operate normally under these circumstances to please connect with us,” she said.
Governor Brown said vaccinations are crucial to ending COVID-related business closures.
They reduce the likelihood of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19 to almost zero and are proving to significantly reduce transmission of the virus in general. Roughly 30% of Klamath County residents have received at least one vaccine dose, and a little less than two-thirds of those over 65. The governor’s office said that virtually all those currently hospitalized in Oregon had not been vaccinated.
Minty Morris urged the community to take advantage of the local abundance of vaccine doses at pharmacies and clinics throughout the county. More information about the shots and where to get them can be found on Klamath County Public Health’s website.
“I fully support people making their own choices, but I hope that people feel comfortable getting a vaccine. They are now readily available in this community. If you talk to anyone who’s gotten a vaccine, everyone’s had a really positive experience,” Minty Morris said.
Klamath County Commissioners and Klamath Tribal Council have declared April 25 through May 22 Vaccine Awareness Month, encouraging local residents to get their shots if they haven’t yet.
If vaccination rates locally and across Oregon increase enough and cases and hospitalizations get under control, the Governor’s office believes we could be in for a much less restrictive summer.
Minty Morris said it’s crucial for Klamath County to work together to contain the pandemic so the restrictions can end and the county can focus on economic recovery.
“I hear everybody loud and clear that they’re tired of this. I’m tired of it too. Everybody’s been at this a long time. Tempers are pretty high right now. But I think there are some good things we can point to,” Minty Morris said. “It’s been really heartwarming to see students back in school. I’ve just seen some really beautiful acts of service by our healthcare community and our community as a whole. Let’s try to get through these next four to eight weeks together.”