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COVID spike from Pendleton Round-Up sours Oregon progress

By Gillian Flaccus Associated Press

PORTLAND – Oregon is experiencing a downward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases after a crippling late-summer surge, but Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday she was “gravely concerned” about an outbreak in the northeastern part of the state following the Pendleton Round-Up rodeo.

So far, there have been at least 49 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 tied to the annual rodeo, which attracted thousands of people to a rural corner of Oregon from Sept. 11-18. Most of the cases were reported in Umatilla County, where the round-up takes place, and in nearby Wallowa County.

Joe Fiumara, Umatilla County’s public health director, said some people who attended the rodeo were sick but chose to go anyway.

It’s still too early to say if those cases foreshadow a new spike in cases statewide and health officials are watching closely for that possibility, said Deputy State Epidemiologist Dr. Tom Jeanne.

Umatilla County has one of the lower vaccination rates in the state, with 46% of its eligible residents fully vaccinated. The county recorded its second-highest number of newly confirmed virus cases last week since the outbreak began and hospitals in the rural area have struggled to keep up with patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on Monday voted to declare a public health emergency because of a “drastic spike” in COVID-19 after at least 72 new cases were diagnosed at its tribal health clinic in Umatilla County last week.

“We knew that a surge in positive COVID-19 cases was possible following the Pendleton Round-Up. What we’ve seen from this past week is that the cases have spiked quickly,” Aaron Hines, the clinic’s interim CEO, said in a statement.

The worries about a potential surge tied to the rodeo came amid a brighter coronavirus outlook overall for Oregon, state officials said.

Statewide, the COVID-19 surge of late summer and early fall “appears to have reached its peak,” Jeanne said.

Hospitalizations and new case numbers are declining, and the state’s positivity rate for virus tests has dropped from 12% to 8.9% since Sept. 1, he said. Newly confirmed case counts have declined for three weeks in a row, he added.

Brown also said there is ample supply of the Pfizer vaccine in Oregon for people in certain groups eligible for booster shots.

People are eligible to receive booster shots six months after they received the second dose of Pfizer vaccine if they meet one of these requirements:

• Age over age 65.

• Live in a long-term care setting.

• Have an underlying medical condition that puts them at a higher risk of COVID-19 and are between ages 18 and 64.

• Work in jobs that puts them at high risk of COVID-19 exposure, such as teachers, health care workers, first responders, transit workers and grocery store workers

“If you are in one of these groups, you can schedule an appointment today,” Brown said. “We have free and readily available vaccines across the state. Everyone who is eligible for a vaccine will get one.”

About 300,000 Oregonians are currently eligible for the Pfizer booster and there are 800,000 doses of vaccine available around the state, including 400,000 Pfizer doses, said Rachael Banks, director of the Oregon Health Authority’s public health division.

The state is planning for larger-scale vaccine clinics for booster shots and also looking for “child-friendly” sites “anticipating there may be authorization for children ages 5-11 later this fall,” Banks said.

Currently, 75% of the people eligible for the vaccine in Oregon have received at least one dose and nearly 69% are fully vaccinated, according to statewide COVID-19 data.