As COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue their declines in Oregon and across the country, state health officials remain hopeful that an anticipated spring infection wave triggered by virus subvariants will be short-lived.
Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., health officer and state epidemiologist at Oregon Health Authority (OHA), said he expects to see adjustments in the state’s COVID-19 forecast over the coming months as health officials learn more about infections from XBB.1.16, an Omicron subvariant that has yet to be identified in the state. Along with another burgeoning Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.9, XBB.1.16 is forecast to cause an increase in infections that will peak in June, he said, citing Oregon Health & Science University forecasting data.
Thanks to a positive overall outlook for COVID-19 in the coming months, Sidelinger was confident the state can weather a subvariant wave and continue its preparations for winding down Oregon’s pandemic response on several fronts as the federal public health emergency ends May 11.
Speaking to reporters Thursday during OHA’s final monthly COVID-19 media briefing, Sidelinger said that on March 30, Oregon finally dropped below 200 hospitalizations, which the state hasn’t seen since May 2022.
“On Tuesday, April 18, we had 172 hospitalized COVID-19-positive patients in Oregon, which was slightly higher than the week before, but still represents a steady downward trend from our recent hospitalization peak of 370 on November 29, 2022,” he said.
“To put that number in perspective, our highest hospitalization count during the pandemic was 1,178, which occurred on September 1, 2021, during the Delta surge. We’ve come a long way.”
Sidelinger noted that Oregon’s percentage of positive COVID-19 test results has stayed relatively flat since the start of the year, with a slight jump occurring in late March. “We expect this trend to continue, particularly as new subvariants continue to evolve and enter Oregon over the next several months,” he said.
The ending of the federal public health emergency means that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for some COVID-19 response activities also will end. That includes vaccines and therapeutics that have been provided at no cost to everyone in the country since December 2020. After May 11, pharmaceutical companies will begin distributing and selling vaccines like other vaccines, such as the influenza vaccine; therapeutics commercialization is product-dependent with different timelines, and some are already available commercially.
This transition is likely to take place sometime early fall 2023 for vaccines and by the end of 2023 for therapeutics.
“Right now, there are many unknowns regarding the commercialization process,” Sidelinger said. “For example, we don’t know what COVID vaccine and therapeutics prices will be. OHA is working with other state agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure everyone in Oregon will have continued, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics once commercialization takes place.”
Also ending after May 11 are FEMA-funded community vaccinations events, which were “hugely efficient at administering the many types of vaccine doses that were offered over the course of the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, including the monovalent primary and booster doses, and the bivalent booster doses,” Sidelinger said. In total, more than 340,000 vaccine doses were administered at more than 6,300 vaccination events.
And access to My Electronic Vaccine Card (MEVC), at myelectronicvaccinecard.oregon.gov, will be decommissioned and archived after the federal emergency ends. People can still use the e-card as proof of their COVID-19 vaccine indefinitely, but they should add any boosters to the card before May 11. After that time, they will not be able update their information, nor will people be able to set up new accounts.
Sidelinger explained that showing the original white vaccination record card from the CDC – or a photo of the card – or showing an immunization record from a health care provider or OHA’s ALERT Immunization Information System still works for proving vaccination status.
During the media briefing, Sidelinger touched on this week’s announcements by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC that authorized and recommended a second dose of the bivalent COVID-19 vaccines for persons 65 years of age and older, and for people 6 and older with certain immunocompromising conditions. He said the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices discussed simplified recommendations for the vaccines April 19 and that the recommendations were affirmed by the CDC.
The second bivalent booster doses will be available to eligible Oregonians in the coming days.
“Stay tuned for additional recommendations, including whether regular boosters will be needed,” Sidelinger said. “We recommend anyone who is now eligible to get the bivalent booster do so as soon as they can. They can get the booster through their health care provider, a county public health vaccine clinic, federally qualified health centers and local pharmacies.”