Jan. 7: An Omicron variant update, a chance to help with the Point-In-Time Count and more

Dear friends and neighbors,

First off, I want to wish all of you a happy new year. I know that 2021 continued to be immensely difficult for many of us, and I hope that — despite the challenges that our community is still facing — we can find ways to carry forward with more hope, renewed optimism, hard-earned perspective and a deepened commitment to each other.

Of course, a new calendar page isn’t a magical reset button. And in fact, we’re starting this year by confronting a new dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic that began to emerge at the end of last year: the Omicron variant. 

At Thursday's board meeting, representatives from Multnomah County’s Public Health shared what they know so far, what we can expect and where we’re headed in relation to the variant, and I want to use this space to share some of their most notable points with you. (You can also watch their presentation here.)

Like with the Delta variant, people who aren’t yet fully vaccinated (and boosted) are at much, much higher risk of getting infected with Omicron, experiencing more serious illness or ending up in the hospital. 

However, Omicron is considerably more contagious than Delta. It’s also transmissible earlier: the time period between when someone is near a person who’s sick and they become infectious themselves is about half of what it was with previous forms of the virus. By the time someone infected with the Omicron variant starts to feel symptoms of illness, they’ve likely been infectious for several days. This means that people who are infected may unintentionally spread the virus before they experience any symptoms at all, making the transmission of the virus much more likely and widespread. This also means that public health tools like contact tracing, which were critical in slowing the spread of earlier variants, are much less effective at interrupting the spread of the Omicron variant. 

This variant is spreading quickly through our community. Our latest local data shows that the testing positivity rate essentially doubled toward the end of December. As of this morning, the state posted a new, staggering record for positive cases for the fifth day in a row. In addition to high rates of infection among those who are unvaccinated, we are also seeing many more breakthrough cases among people who’ve been fully vaccinated, as well as people who had previously been infected with COVID-19. 

If there’s any positive news that can be salvaged from this development, it’s what catching Omicron is likely to mean for an individual’s health. Preliminary data — remember: this variant was only discovered in late November — points to Omicron infections leading to milder illness than Delta, especially among those who are vaccinated and boosted. 

However, we must remember that there are still many community members who are still at risk of becoming severely ill and needing to be hospitalized, including people who are immunocompromised, children who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, and individuals who are under-vaccinated (i.e., haven’t yet received a booster shot) or unvaccinated. As Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines put it, “Because it spreads so quickly, it is going to find its way to people who are likely to suffer severe illness.” 

So what can we do to protect ourselves and each other as much as possible? 

Dr. Vines focused on four concrete actions:

  1. Get vaccinated and boosted. Vaccines continue to offer the best protection against severe disease and hospitalization. As immunity wanes, boosters become incredibly important and can both lower your risk of infection and increase protection against severe disease. Get your vaccine or booster by finding a County vaccine clinic here, from your doctor or clinic, or from another location that you can find here. Every dose of the vaccine, in every age group that can get it, makes a real difference. 
  2. Refresh your commitment to masking. While N95s and KN95s offer the best protection, the best mask is the one you will wear properly and consistently. Regardless of the type of mask you use, make sure it fits well over your nose and mouth, with no gaps around your cheeks. Wearing a mask indoors when you’re around people who are not in your household remains incredibly important, especially if they live or interact with individuals at high risk of becoming severely ill or hospitalized. 
  3. Stay home if you are feeling sick and showing symptoms. This applies as long as you are showing symptoms, even if your COVID test is negative.  
  4. Limit social contacts and/or the size of gatherings. Taking this step lowers your risk of being exposed, and exposing others, to the virus.

The sheer contagiousness of the Omicron variant will likely place enormous stress on our healthcare systems. Even a lower rate of hospitalizations can quickly inundate our hospital systems with people experiencing serious illness if so many more people are getting infected. Hospitals are already under an incredible amount of strain. OPB reports that hospitalizations of COVID-positive patients have increased over the last month — double in some cases. 

And as higher numbers of people become infected with the COVID-19 virus and call in sick to stay home, even with mild symptoms, other critical systems in addition to healthcare will experience stress, if not disruptions — childcare, first responders, pharmacies, grocery stores and suppliers.

We’re working to avoid those scenarios as best we can, and these steps will help.

Staying mindful of what the presence and spread of COVID-19, and especially this new variant, mean for each of us and our community is more than tiring. As the virus hit my own family over the holiday season, I know that it can be downright scary. But the guidance that our Public Health is offering can help us balance the need to continue moving forward with ways to keep ourselves (and each other) as safe as possible and critical systems functioning. Let’s follow these steps for ourselves, our families and friends, and our fellow community members as we work for a healthier, more hopeful new year.

Please stay safe and stay healthy,

Deborah Kafoury
Multnomah County Chair

Can you help with this year’s Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness?

We are looking for volunteers to help with this year's Multnomah County Point-in-Time Street Count, conducted every other year by Portland State University and the Joint Office of Homeless Services. The purpose of the Street Count is to learn more about the individuals and families experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Multnomah County.  

By volunteering, you can help address the crisis of homelessness in our county by counting how many people are sleeping on the street on a single night. The more volunteers participate, the more accurate our count can be; even volunteering for a few hours helps immensely. The majority of the shifts will be scheduled the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 26, through the evening of Friday, Jan. 28, but there are shifts through February 1. 

Learn more about the Point-in-Time Count and please sign up to volunteer!

Apply to join the tri-county Metro Supporting Housing Services Measure planning body

Metro is now accepting applications for its supportive housing services tri-county planning body, which will support regional alignment of local implementation plans.

The group will work to strengthen coordination and alignment of how the supportive housing services program works across the Metro region to address homelessness more effectively. These efforts will not replace the community-centered work happening in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, but it is intended to strengthen its effectiveness by helping counties bring appropriate aspects of the program to a regional scale.

Metro is looking for applicants from across the region with experience and/or expertise in being homeless, being part of a marginalized group, serving people experiencing homelessness, or with work in fields like culturally specific services, business, philanthropy, racial equity, systems alignment and other related fields.

Read more about what the committee is charged with, and how to apply. The deadline to submit an application is Feb. 18, 2022.