Multnomah County is on the verge of entering “Lower Risk” status under Oregon’s reopening framework, county public health leaders said Thursday. The pending change in risk levels comes after Gov. Kate Brown announced a change in reopening metrics. At the same time cases have begun to decline from their spring peak, with testing positivity below five percent.
More than 65 percent of Multnomah County residents age 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; that number is one part of a two-part framework that would allow a County to drop to “Lower Risk.” On Friday, May 21, Multnomah County will submit the second part of that framework: an equity plan detailing how health officials will address racial disparities in vaccination rates.
With the current timeline, Multnomah County expects to enter the “Lower Risk” level on Friday, May 28, health officials told the Board Thursday. That would allow indoor restaurants, fitness centers and entertainment establishments to operate at 50 percent capacity. It also means higher occupancy levels for outdoor venues.
“It is a big step forward for our county,” Tri-County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said. “Sixty-five percent is not herd immunity. Herd immunity, the level of community protection where we see a virus really become sort of a minimal threat, is a moving target as we vaccinate.”
Even though cases are on the decline, health leaders caution that transmission continues, the more-transmissible UK variant of the virus is now the dominant strain in Multnomah County and communities of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus.
During the month of April, hospitalizations were noticeably higher among Black residents. Similar trends have been observed among Asian and Pacific Islanders at other points during the pandemic.
That’s why Multnomah County took an additional week to draft its equity plan in partnership with community groups that have worked together with the County throughout its response.
“We have been proactive and reaching out to community members and putting equity at the forefront of our plans since the beginning of this pandemic,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “Taking this pause and doing a thoughtful, intentional plan really is who we are as a county.”
By the numbers: vaccinations in Multnomah County
More than 450,000 Multnomah County residents have been vaccinated, with close to 340,000 completing their series and another 115,000 in progress, Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey said. Multnomah County itself has received 137,000 doses and redistributed close to 90,000.
So far, Multnomah County Public Health has sponsored 120 clinics aimed at filling in gaps. In total, those clinics have served more than 21,000 people, with 73 percent identifying as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Multnomah County is working with community leaders and community-based organizations to identify barriers to vaccination and build trust with under-vaccinated populations.
Language access is central to the County’s vaccine push, with more than 200 staff and volunteers assisting with accessibility. The County has received requests for 39 different languages, and 16 percent of participants at Multnomah County’s clinics request language assistance.
“It’s amazing to see the different languages we’re serving, the diversity of our population, and how we’re reaching people in the right way and being able to provide them the services they need in the languages they understand,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said.
As Multnomah County prepares to submit its equity plan, Guernsey said deeper outreach and engagement is needed to reduce health and vaccination disparities among communities of color.
“I know folks are tired and want to move forward, but we have a ways to go with some of this work,” Guernsey said. “It’s of critical importance that we look at this deadly combination of a global pandemic and underlying health conditions in communities that have experienced systemic racism.”
New mask guidelines
Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the Oregon Health Authority announced last week new mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people.
State guidelines say most people don’t need to wear masks outdoors because the risk of transmission is low. But people who are not fully vaccinated are still encouraged to mask outdoors in crowded areas. People who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks indoors, except for congregate settings like hospitals, jails and shelters, or where businesses choose to continue a policy of mask wearing.
Under the new rule, businesses can continue to enforce mask guidelines, or they can ask for proof of vaccination status. That has led to some discussion about what role, if any, businesses should have in verifying vaccination status.
“I have been getting questions from businesses about the requirement that either they require masks or they check vaccination records,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said, noting the strain that puts on business owners and staff.
The state as a whole will also see restrictions ease considerably once 70 percent of the state’s population has received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is predicted to happen in June.
“I think there are still some unknowns and I think we’re going to remain in this dance for a while,” Vines said. “I hope, along with that, we can continue our work in public health to address the underlying chronic conditions that make people so vulnerable to the worst effects of this virus.”