WEEKLY COVID UPDATE: February 22

As of the end of last week, an additional 21 confirmed cases of COVID raised Benton County’s total positive cases to 2,155 since the start of the pandemic. The average number of daily confirmed cases over the past two weeks is now 12.43, a decrease compared to 15.86 cases the last two weeks of January.  

Statewide, Oregon reported 536 new cases last week, increasing the state’s total COVID cases to almost 153,000.   

“Oregon has the third lowest infection rate in the nation,” Gov. Kate Brown said during a press conference on Friday, and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported a 15% decrease in positive cases last week compared to the week before.  

The U.S. reported 77,385 cases last week, which is 24.5% less than the case count of the week before. This is a promising sign, as the general downward trend of COVID cases in the U.S. has continued for five weeks. Global rates are also declining; since the beginning of January, during which cases peaked through the largest wave since the start of the pandemic, weekly global case reports have decreased between 4 to 12% per week.  

Vaccines  

Oregon has been in Phase 1B of its vaccine campaign, which means healthcare and essential workers, childcare providers, K-12 educators, and people aged 75 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine.  

Today, marks the start of eligibility for people aged 70 and older to receive the vaccine. As of this past weekend, over 780,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in Oregon, with around 248,000 people having received the recommended two doses at this time.  

With the extreme winter weather the northern half of the state experienced last week, many vaccine clinics in and around the Portland were forced to close as parts of the city were covered in more than ten inches of snow and ice.  

Regardless of the temporary freeze in vaccinations, OHA Director Patrick Allen reassured Oregonians in Gov. Brown’s press conference on Friday that, “Oregon’s vaccination timeline remains on track despite the weather.” Though many vaccines were halted in transport to clinics during the storm, Allen said the OHA “doesn’t expect these problems to have a long-term impact on our vaccination schedule”.  

A new trial has just begun to understand the safety and risks associated with pregnant and breastfeeding women receiving the Pfizer mRNA COVID vaccine. The pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech SE announced on Feb. 18 that the first round of pregnant women had been given either a dose of the vaccine or a placebo in their new clinical trial taking place around the world. Women 24 to 34 weeks into their pregnancies from multiple countries in South America, Africa, Europe, and including the U.S. are taking part in the trial.  

Because pregnant or breastfeeding women were not directly included in the original vaccine trials, information on potential risks to expecting mothers and their developing babies is limited. However, researchers are hopeful that the vaccine will prove effective and safe for pregnant women, as vaccine testing on animals did not result in negative consequences to fetus development or birth.   

Variants  

There are numerous variants of the virus currently circulating in the U.S. that have originated in other countries; namely, the United Kingdom variant (titled B.1.1.7), the South African variant (B.1.351), and a Brazilian variant (P.1).  

The U.K. variant is by far the most prevalent variant of the original COVID virus in the U.S. as it is currently present in 42 states. The other two are so far less detected in the U.S., however all three variants are worrisome to healthcare professionals. It is still unknown exactly how effective the vaccines are against these virus variants or if the variants are more deadly, but the U.K. variant is reportedly 50% more transmissible than the original virus. So far, only the U.K. variant has been detected in Oregon.  

In a study published last weekend, researchers discovered seven additional variants that originated within the U.S. and pose new potential risks. The mutation in these viruses has occurred in the genes associated with the virus’s ability to invade human cells.  

Though these variants were discovered all over the country between Aug. and Nov. 2020, scientists have no idea how prevalent they are or where they originated, as the U.S. has been notoriously slow in tracking and modeling COVID genomes to trace and predict mutations. One of the seven U.S. variants was initially detected in Oregon.  

School Openings 

While Benton County is still in the “orange zone”, a categorical color based on number of COVID cases in the county per two weeks, the risk of transmission is still too high for all schools to plan for on-site education.  

However, in light of the mental and developmental toll remote learning has taken on school-aged children, the Benton County School District is planning hybrid programs of combined remote and in-person learning starting March 8. Students will be welcomed back in phases, starting with kindergarten and progressing through higher grades on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.  

As Gov. Brown has pushed for protecting educators by raising them up in the vaccine schedule, more teachers feel safe to open classrooms to students and work with families to arrange for non-traditional learning programs to get children back on track.  

“More than 600 schools across the state are open for hybrid or full in-person learning”, Brown said during the press conference on Friday. Around 10% of the states’ grade school students are back to in-person learning at least part-time 

This is a weekly column updating the residents of Benton County on local, national, and international news on the pandemic. If you would like to make suggestions of topics to cover related to the virus, please email any resources or thoughts to covidupdate@corvallisadvocate.com  

By: Lauren Zatkos