Compared to the past two years, this summer has looked pretty normal. Mask mandates and vaccine requirements are scarce and Central Oregon is about to begin the first full school year without masks since the pandemic began.
But the region still faces lingering effects.
This week last year, Central Oregon and the rest of the state faced some major shakeups when it came to COVID.
Locally, St. Charles broke the then-record for COVID-19 hospitalizations with 62 patients. The Redmond School Board began to consider the option of putting forth a resolution that would push back against the mask mandate in schools.
On a state level, Gov. Kate Brown issued another statewide indoor mask mandate as Oregon dealt with the contagious delta variant.
“That wasn’t a happy place,” said Dr. Cynthia Maree, an Infectious Disease Expert with St. Charles. “It was a hard time. I think it’s about the time we started to get called into emergency meetings to stand up an emergency care center to deal with the capacity issues in our emergency department.”
This year, it’s a lighter load in some ways.
“On average, we’ve had about 20 COVID patients in a bed on any given day,” said Senior Data Scientist Dr. Mike Johnson from St. Charles. “That is coming down, thankfully, from what it has been in the recent past.”
“We’re doing much better this year than we were last year, and a lot of it’s not because of our own doing,” he added. “It’s because of the natural course of the virus.”
Maree added that the lower hospital numbers and lesser restrictions mean elective surgeries are far more available now.
But COVID still casts a sobering shadow. More people are dying of COVID now than they were two months ago.
“We’re on track to have about as many patients as we had in May, but we’re on track to have three times as many deaths as we had in May,” Johnson said. “So even though the numbers are small, we’re on track to have 10 people die in the hospital from COVID this month. So it’s not going away. This new variant is being very crafty and evading immunizations, and it kind of does what it wants.”
Across Deschutes County, there are actually more positive COVID cases recorded this year than last year.
There were 357 new cases between July 31 and August 6 2021 versus 517 new cases from July 30 to August 5 of this year.
Deschutes County COVID-19 program manager Emily Horton said the nature of the latest variant is the main culprit for the higher numbers.
“The BA.5 variant that we’re seeing now is incredibly contagious, so we know it moves through the population relatively quickly,” she said. “I would also say our numbers are higher than are even reported, because many people are taking at-home tests and they don’t report those to the county.”
In schools this year, teachers are still required to have proof of vaccination. But now, masks are a thing of the past, as well as distancing and quarantine protocols.
Despite any COVID number fluctuations, the largest change has been resources.
“I feel like there is a bit of a sigh of relief that we know what’s going on with COVID, we have been dealing with our processes for two years now, we have vaccines that are effective, we have treatments that are effective,” Maree said.
The hospital expects a BA.5-specific vaccine to be approved sometime this fall.
Deschutes County plans to continue hosting free vaccine clinics across the county indefinitely.