Delta variant has become dominant in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As daily COVID-19 cases doubled in the past week, Oregon health officials reported Thursday that the highly transmissible delta variant has now become the dominant coronavirus variant in the state.

But even as cases rise, around 29% of adults in Oregon have yet to be vaccinated. Health officials warn the increased spread of the delta variant poses a great risk for unvaccinated people. Just last month, more than nine out of 10 people who tested positive for COVID-19, were hospitalized or died from the virus were unvaccinated.

“As I heard a health officer say earlier this week, ’If you are not vaccinated and you live in a community where vaccination rates are low, it’s not a question of whether you will get COVID-19… it’s only a question of when,” Patrick Allen, the director of the state health authority, said during a news conference.

For at least 11 consecutive weeks COVID-19 cases had been decreasing in Oregon — until this month. Health experts point to the highly contagious delta variant, first detected in India, as a factor as state and federal officials continue to warn about a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“Oregon is open, but the pandemic is not over…especially for people who remain unvaccinated,” Allen said.

In Oregon, more than 70% of adults have been fully or partially vaccinated. Some counties continue to surpass the state's vaccination percentage. In Multnomah County — the state’s most populous county and home to Portland — 74% of adults are fully or partially vaccinated.

But in one-third of Oregon's counties — many rural — less than 50% of the adult population is vaccinated.

Officials presented evidence on Thursday, which showed that counties with low-vaccination rates directly correlate with high-infection rates.

“This latest wave of COVID-19, which is supercharged by the delta variant and fueled by vulnerable and unvaccinated Oregonians, is not a statewide challenge right now,” Allen said.

In places like rural Umatilla County 43% of the population is partially or fully vaccinated. On Thursday, health officials reported that the county's coronavirus-test positivity rate surpassed 14%.

“My message today is to people who have not yet been vaccinated, you are in harm’s way,” said Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist.

As cases increase in the state, some have questioned if state state will reimplement restrictions — including mask mandates, capacity limits, county risk levels that dictate restrictions and distancing requirements — that were lifted by Gov. Kate Brown on June 30.

During a public Q&A last week, Sidelinger said that if cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge then “nothing is off the table” when it comes to the possibility of reinstating restrictions.

In addition some have wondered if the Oregon Health Authority will recommend that employers mandate that workers be vaccinated. At this time, Allen said he doesn't think that is the right tactic to increase vaccination rates in the state.

“I’m very concerned that simply a direct order right now, given the highly political nature of COVID itself and vaccines, is not likely to be a highly productive tool," he said.

Instead Allen said he believes what would help increase the amount of people being vaccinated, is localized messaging from community leaders, groups, faith organizations, health care providers, friends and family.

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Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.