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COVID-19 updates: Schools struggle to stay in-person, hospital capacity strained

Last week’s rush of developments spurred by the rapid spread of the coronavirus across the Northwest may continue into this week, forcing schools and businesses to make tough decisions.

Nearly 6,000 Oregonians have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The Oregon Health Authority confirmed 8,672 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing the number of people diagnosed with the virus since the start of the pandemic to 51,391.

One by one last week, schools announced that they had too many absent teachers and students, and too few substitutes, to continue with in-person learning. Now, the remaining personal schools from Astoria all the way to Medford are on hold in the hope that they can keep students on campus.

OHA officials announced Friday that they are changing the way they conduct contact tracing in schools: Now, they no longer consider a student or employee to have been exposed to the virus if they are masked when they come into contact with a masked infected person.

The change came “based on accumulating evidence that class mitigation efforts in K-12 schools have worked well to reduce transmission,” an OHA press release said. OHA told the OPB via email that this evidence comes from two studies, one from Wisconsin and the other from Missouri.

Meanwhile, OHA officials said Friday that coronavirus cases are rising sharply among 12- to 17-year-olds, despite a statewide mandate in schools. The number of cases also increased significantly among children aged four years and under. They said the agency is closely monitoring trends in pediatric cases, which made up more than 20% of the state’s total known cases in the previous week. They also said that hospital admissions for children were increasing.

Omicron strains Oregon hospital capacity

Hospitals are filled all over the northwest. They struggle to respond to the surge in COVID-19 admissions as medical staff increasingly recall patients with their own infections.

In Oregon, only 6% of staffed ICU beds are available, according to OHA data released Friday. In Oregon’s largest hospital district — which includes Multnomah, Washington, Tillamook, Clackamas, Clatsup and Columbia — only 5% of intensive care beds are available.

The situation is more bleak in the South: For all of Benton, Lincoln, Lynn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties, there are only two free ICU beds. The same goes for the Jackson and Josephine County area.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown last week ordered 700 National Guard personnel to Oregon hospitals, joining the 500 she had already deployed the previous week. More than 50 hospitals will receive this assistance.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee made a similar announcement last week, when he ordered 100 members of the National Guard to help with hospital staffing challenges. Inslee called on hospitals to halt non-urgent surgeries and procedures for at least a month.

At the same time, blood donations are seriously reduced. The American Red Cross declared its first-ever national blood crisis on January 11th. According to the Red Cross, the decline in blood donations first began with the outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19. With an omicron on its tail, blood drives are being called off while donation centers struggle with staff shortages.

Businesses and public services limit opening hours or shutter doors

Some companies are also closing their doors to the public as more employees become infected or exposed to the transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Portland-area mass transit agency, TriMet, has announced that it is temporarily reducing its bus routes due to a shortage of bus drivers. Two Portland-area trash stations that accept trash pickups from the general public have had to stop accepting non-commercial loads. Officials at Metro — the regional government that operates the transit stations — say their bays are nearly filled with mountains of trash, and they are running out of carriers who can take it to landfills in eastern Oregon.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s efforts to formally adopt a rule mandating vaccines or testing in big companies fizzled out last week, when the US Supreme Court blocked implementation of the Biden Vaccine Administration Act for big companies. On Thursday evening, officials with the Oregon Department of Occupational Safety and Health rescinded the creation of the state’s rules as well.

People queue for up to an hour to get tested for COVID-19 at the Oregon Convention Center earlier this month. Access to exams is becoming an increasing challenge.

Christina Wentz-Graf / OPB

Oregon ramps up testing as household kits are scarce

Oregon officials say they are on track to receive six million at-home COVID-19 test kits, containing 12 million individual tests, by the end of this month. That includes nearly a million test kits expected in the coming week.

However, rapid tests remain elusive. In southern Oregon, Jackson County officials are telling people at low risk of contracting the coronavirus to save tests for others.

As the demand for COVID-19 tests increases, so do scams. State Attorney Elaine Rosenblum is urging Oregonians to watch test sites that appear suspicious, or to sellers selling home tests at exorbitant prices.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Justice opened an investigation into a company called The Center for Covid Control, which has been accused of operating suspected COVID-19 testing sites. The agency is asking Oregonians to report any questionable test sites or sellers selling inflated home tests to its consumer hotline by calling 877-877-9392 or through its website.

For those who have been able to dodge scams and access any COVID-19 tests at home, state officials are asking people to report these positive results to the OHA COVID-19 Case Support Hotline by calling 866-917-8881 or from During the online survey.

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