Demand grows to remove COVID restrictions

By NICOLE MONTESANO<br/>Of the News-Register

Demand grows to lift COVID orders

Some experts warn it would be a mistake

(Editor's Note: See updated information about removal of restrictions in "Governor approves" article.)

Removing mask and social distancing requirements intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a serious mistake, experts from Oregon State University warned this week, even as clamor increased for Gov. Kate Brown to abandon the goal of reaching a vaccination rate of 70% of adults in the state, before dropping most restrictions.

The state reached 68.9% as of Thursday.

The state Republican Party has been pushing to drop the restrictions now, particularly as more states across the country begin fully reopening.

Professor Brett Tyler, director of OSU’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, told journalists this week that in Great Britain, “they have 80% of the population vaccinated and they’re having a surge right now.”

Tyler said he fears that if restrictions are dropped, people will believe the danger from the pandemic is over, and that there is no longer a reason to get vaccinated.

“I’m very concerned that there will be a surge,” Tyler said. “It might be the Delta variant, but it might be either the Alpha variant which is already very infectious and already in 100% of the communities that we test, or it might be the Gamma variant, which is the one originating in Brazil, which is in 71% of our communities. So the only thing holding those variants back right now in addition to the vaccination is the ongoing restrictions on physical distance and on mask wearing. Take that away and it’s just going to be like a wildfire.”

The Delta variant, which is significantly more transmissible and more dangerous, has been spreading rapidly across the United States, although Tyler said that, so far, it has much less of a foothold in Oregon than the Alpha and Gamma variants. All three are significantly more transmissible than the original strain.

OSU Assistant Professor Aimee Huff, who studies consumer behavior, told journalists, “I realize that, of course, there’s a great amount of fatigue that people have about regulations and restrictions and things we have to, and cannot do during COVID, but I think the role of regulations, the things that people are required to do by law, the role of that cannot be understated.”

Huff said, “I think a lot of the reason people and organizations are behaving the way they are right now in terms of mask wearing and hygiene protocol is because they are required to, and not because it’s best practices, not because it’s the best thing to keep people safe. And so I worry about all of the regulations being lifted, because I think we’ll see a lot of people and organizations abandoning them entirely.”

According to the Oregon Health Authority, 68.9% of the state’s adult population has now received at least one dose of vaccine. Republicans and business owners have argued that there is little meaningful difference between that and 70%.

However, Professor Chi Chinhuei, director of the OSU Center for Global Health, noted that “the 70% is based on the age 18 and older; adjusted for the whole population it is probably less than 50% and that’s way not enough.”

Chinhuei recommends people who have to return to work in person continue to wear masks, “even if you are vaccinated, … particularly to prevent the highly contagious Delta variant.”

Tyler noted, “In Britain; 99% of new infections are the result of the Delta variant, and it also shows a strong ability to overcome immunity in people who’ve only had their first vaccination. The vaccines only provide 33% effectiveness against the Delta. Compare that to the Alpha variant, where the protection is 50%. So that’s the concern.”

Professors also noted that the 70% goal was selected arbitrarily.

The Oregon Health Authority, however, said it feels confident in the state’s plan to remove most restrictions, once the 70% goal is reached.

“Oregon is closing in on our 70% vaccination goal, which will allow all of us to return to a more normal life, without the restrictions and limitations we’ve had to rely on to fight COVID-19 for the past year and a half,” OHA Public Affairs Specialist Rudy Owens told the News-Register. “The Governor’s target aligns with our national strategy to help reopen the nation. Reopening does not mean we will be stopping our efforts to vaccinate as many Oregonians as we can.”

Owens agreed that “reaching the 70% threshold will not mean the end to statewide vaccination efforts or that the pandemic has ended.”

“After Oregon reaches 70%, COVID-19 will still remain a threat in our communities, especially to any Oregonian not yet protected through vaccination. The statewide response will look different, and OHA will continue working with local public health partners in vaccination efforts, as well as pandemic response and recovery. This will include monitoring, providing assistance and resources to local public health and health care providers as needed –– including testing, contacting tracing, and controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Owen said.

State vaccination rates have slowed significantly in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the Oregon Health Authority said that the state’s seven-day running average is now 10,112 doses per day. It said the number of adult Oregonians needing vaccinations to reach the 70% threshold, as of Wednesday, was 38,143.

Huff told journalists that vaccinations have slowed because the population of people the state still needs to target has changed, and said the state needs to update its messaging accordingly.

The trends are following a predictable pattern, Huff said; people who have high trust in the technology, or who tend to be early adopters, have, by and large, already received their vaccinations.

Now, she said, “we’re seeing a shift to the late majority, and the late majority is really different from the early majority, because they are much more conservative. They are less motivated by trust in the technology than by peer pressure and a sense or feeling of being left out. And we’re seeing lots of stuff, lots of people saying … ‘I finally got my vaccine because I was only one at office that didn’t have it.’ Or, ‘I really want to travel, so I reluctantly went to get my vaccine.’”

Consequently, Huff said, “the messaging to that group needs to be different than from the front group, and more importantly, they just take longer. ... So I think that distinction between that late majority and the early majority I think we’re seeing the transition between those two groups right now and that can help to explain why sometimes it seems like we’re stalling out.”

She said that “I think the public health messages really need to be more tailored to their audiences at this point.” Other experts said it will be important for the state to work closely with family physicians, and to continue focusing on providing vaccine access for minority communities, who can have significant difficulty in taking time off work to obtain a vaccine or sick time because of vaccine side effects.

“If there is a surge, it’s our most vulnerable populations, populations of color that are going to be most heavily affected,” Tyler said.

Yamhill County reported on Thursday that, as of June 22, just 59% of people 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The county numbers count ages 16 and older, while the state is calculating from 18 and older, in order to align with data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chinhuei argued that the numbers need to be recalculated, to include people 12 and older.

As of Wednesday, the county had seen a total of 4,792 cases to date, and 79 deaths. Statewide, there have been 207,333 cases to date, and 2,759 deaths. There have been some 600,000 deaths nationwide.

Chinhuei said he is most worried about spread of the virus among people who are unvaccinated. He said it is important for society to continue to protect its most vulnerable members.

“We know there are a small percentage people who for health reasons cannot be vaccinated; so we need to accommodate those people, to urge them still, be wearing masks, because the very same people who for health or other reasons cannot be vaccinated they are also the most vulnerable people and they also need to be protected,” he said.

The Oregon Health Authority noted on Wednesday that, according to its weekly report, new daily cases decreased by 4.7% last week, from the previous week, and deaths dropped to 26, from 36 the previous week. However, it said, new hospitalizations increased from 152 to 161.

(Editor’s note: the News-Register editorial on Page B2 of this edition calls for the governor to loosen requirements. Also, the governor’s office announced Thursday that it will be holding a media conference Friday morning, but is withholding information about the substance of the event until Friday morning, too late for presstime.)


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