May 3, 2022

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday bumped Multnomah County from “low” to “medium” community-level spread of COVID-19, prompting local Public Health officials to renew their most basic and effective recommendations for slowing transmission of the disease: People should make sure they’re up-to-date on their vaccines, practice good hand hygiene, and stay home if they feel sick — even if its not with COVID-19.

Health Officer Dr. Jenifer Vines, right, joins Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey, left, for a routine Board briefing on COVID-19

The CDC determines the pandemic’s impact on counties based on new cases, hospital admissions and use of inpatient beds.

Locally, test positivity is trending above 5 percent, Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines told the Board on Tuesday during a routine briefing on the pandemic. But with fewer people seeking lab tests, test positivity is a less reliable indicator of community spread. Many home tests, which are increasingly common, may not be reflected in official numbers.

And while cases have been rising, hospitalizations, which have lagged behind a rise in cases in past surges, remain low. A flat hospitalization rate may indicate that while the BA.2 variant might be more contagious than prior forms, it causes less severe illness. 

All the same, the rise in cases is concerning enough that Public Health  is strongly reiterating its most tried-and-true recommendations, including staying home if you’re sick. And sick doesn’t just mean potentially having COVID-19; Public Health is eying an uptick in other common illnesses such as whooping cough and norovirus.

“This is not Public Health coming in with mask mandates for everybody,” Vines said. “This is putting the community on alert that cases are going up, and we don’t want to see medically fragile individuals hospitalized with this virus.  And so we go back to what works.”

Public Health also recommends that people who are at high risk consider wearing a mask indoors, understand the symptoms they should watch for, have access to testing, and make a plan to quickly get antivirals should they fall ill with COVID-19.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked why Public Health wasn’t opting to make a more forceful and universal recommendation for masking, 

“Why don’t we strongly recommend indoor masking now? And leave the opportunity for a mandate to be the next step?” she asked.

Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey said, “We need to measure our recommendations so that it is proportionate to what we’re seeing.”

When Public Health issued mandates and closures in 2020, it was necessary, she said. “We had only blunt tools.” 

We have better tools in 2022, she said. We have vaccines and natural immunity that comes from contracting the virus. And we also have different ways of understanding what is happening with new variants, both from our quantitative data and our work in community to understand what people are seeing and experiencing — often before we actually see it in our data. 

There may come a time, perhaps as early as this fall, when more forceful guidance would be needed, Guernsey said.

“For the most part, we are ramping down away from mandates and amplifying recommendations,” she said. “We’re going to be living with this virus for a very long time. Unfortunately we’re going to go through ebbs and flows, like we are right now.”