October 15, 2021

Test positivity, cases and hospitalizations are trending down across Multnomah County after the fifth — and steepest — surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of exposures at area schools remains remarkably low, thanks to close coordination between public health and schools, and layered prevention measures. And a vaccine is likely to become available to protect children ages 5 to 11 from the virus, as early as November.

“Where we are now is below the peak of our last highest wave, which was in January,” Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines told the Board of County Commissioners Thursday during a biweekly briefing on COVID-19. “So while it does feel like we’re on the other side of the Delta variant, we still have a long way to go.” 

With cautious optimism, Multnomah County Public Health is gearing up for a busy winter developing a pediatric vaccine strategy to reach vulnerable kids while doubling down on broader vaccination education and clinics intended to serve Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. And it’s considering how to protect more people experiencing homelessness at area shelters, in light of physical distancing recommendations.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests that are actually positive  — a marker of disease spread — has dropped to 5.6% from an August high of 7.4%. A rate above 10% suggests rampant spread, while a rate of 5 to 10%should flag serious concern and close watch. Below 5% is the goal — a rate Multnomah County left behind when the Delta variant surged in July.

“So you can see a place where we might exhale a bit, although still pretty bumpy,” Vines said.

While hospitalizations have dropped overall, Black, African American and Native American residents are still being hospitalized at higher rates. But focused efforts to close the vaccination gap between white residents and some communities of color are working, said Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey. More than 60%of Black and Native American residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 75% of whites.

“They’re continuing to move up, which is good news,” Guernsey said.

Public Health is maintaining its focus on BIPOC communities as it develops a pediatric vaccine plan to roll out as early as mid November, when health officials expect a vaccine will be approved and available. Those plans will require different facilities that might be more welcoming for kids and families, where those waiting to receive the vaccine can be in a separate room from those getting it to avoid having them hear another child cry.

Expanding vaccine access to children is a key step to limiting the risk of outbreaks in schools, and it will also dramatically limit the number of kids required to stay home if they are exposed to the virus. Other public health measures — most importantly wearing masks and promoting vaccination whenever possible — have so far helped limit the spread in schools.

In September, Public Health was notified of 265 people who spent time at a school in Multnomah County while infectious with COVID-19, and only 22 cases of known transmission associated with the school. Those exposures are comparatively few, considering more than 100,000 students and staff spend time at schools in the county. 

“The incredible work that’s gone above and beyond state guidelines has paid off. We’re going to see cases, but we’re seeing a relatively low number of cases,” Guernsey said. “For all the work that the schools have done they are one of the safest places to be.”