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Brown defends powers in virus crisis as Oregon tops nation in COVID-19 rate
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Brown defends powers in virus crisis as Oregon tops nation in COVID-19 rate

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Walk in vaccination May 1

Wednesday was the first day people could try to get a COVID-19 shot without an appointment at the Reser Stadium vaccination clinic. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she is standing by her risk orders because of high hospitalization rates in the state. 

Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that she has no intention of rolling back orders issued this week to fight the nation's worst rate of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations now hitting Oregon.

"Cases are widespread, driven by new, more contagious variants," Brown said during a virtual press conference Friday morning.

The Centers for Disease Control reported Friday that Oregon has the highest rate of new infections and hospitalizations of any state in the nation. Cases of COVID-19 have risen 38% in the past two weeks, while hospitalizations are up 43%. Nationwide, both are in decline.

The president used his address to look forward to a return to normal after the pandemic. He touted the number of vaccines administered during his time in office, over 220 million, and urged Americans to continue to roll up their sleeves and get a shot."Today, 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site," said President Biden. "Everyone over the age of 16, everyone, is now eligible to get vaccinated right now, right away. Go get vaccinated, America."While millions of Americans have gotten a shot, the daily number of vaccinations has fallen sharply. Part of the reason could be vaccine hesitancy. And there appears to be a partisan divide. A poll last month found 29% of Republicans say they will definitely not get vaccinated. Just 5% of Democrats said the same. Health officials worry this could slow a return to normal. 

Fifteen counties, including Linn, already exceeded the extreme risk numbers at the very top of the state's four-tier COVID-19 risk chart. But Brown had ordered that the counties would not need to resort to the most severe restrictions as long as the state's hospital system was not overly taxed. She set 300 COVID-19 hospitalizations as the "tripwire" for restoring the ban on indoor dining and strict limits on activities and gatherings.

When cases topped 300 on Monday, Brown lifted the moratorium on extreme risk limits, putting 15 counties into extreme risk restrictions Friday. On Friday, the state reported 339 COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state.

With early and sometimes heavy restrictions, Oregon has one of the lowest case rates and deaths since the pandemic began spreading in the first months of 2020. Brown said decisions often had to be made pitting "lives and livelihoods."

"As your governor, I chose to save lives," she said.

Brown said more than half of state residents have been at least partially vaccinated. The first to receive the vaccine were elderly in nursing homes, who made up more than half the deaths from COVID-19 in the state. While the daily death toll has fallen since its peak last winter, Brown said the current infection rate was rising too quickly and new variants that are more contagious and in some cases, lethal, meant the recent spike had to be taken as seriously as earlier outbreaks.

Brown's latest actions included extending her authority over public health by extending the emergency declaration she issued in March 2020 until at least June 28.

The orders to instigate the extreme risk and extend the emergency set off protests from some political and business leaders.

A Republican-led effort was started in the Legislature to initiate bills to curb Brown's powers or bar another extension.

"Literally everything in Oregonians' lives are being dictated by one person," Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.

A group of commissioners from 27 counties, along with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, sent a letter Tuesday to Brown asking her to reconsider her order and instead give local governments more control to make decisions appropriate to their counties and cities.

"The time has come to allow our communities the opportunity to move forward while embracing continued health and safety precautions," the letter said.

Brown said she knew the pandemic had hammered small businesses, especially restaurants and bars, which have been whipsawed by closing, openings and restrictions for more than a year. A special $20 million fund was being created by the Legislature to go to businesses that take a financial hit under the latest restrictions.

Oregon health officials have also struggled with "vaccine hesitancy" across the state from people unsure of whether they should get inoculated. But vaccinations have also become a political statement, with some counties in Republican areas reporting a dwindling number of people seeking shots.

Brown said supplies would be redirected to areas where there is still heavy demand. Lane County announced Thursday that it would receive triple the number of doses it had been getting each week. Walk-in vaccinations have also started sporadically, copying the statewide efforts in New York and California.

Peter Graven, a lead data scientist at Oregon Health & Science University, who has advised Brown throughout the pandemic, said it would only take three weeks of observing the restrictions before the virus spread would stall. He reiterated Brown's position that maintaining a brisk rate of vaccination was the key to getting the state back to something close to normal by the end of June.

Without the current restrictions, Graven said 176 people could die and over 700 people could be hospitalized in the next few months, primarily in May.

Graven said a short stoppage of activity would pay off in the short and long term.

"We have just three to four weeks until we will be in good shape," he said.

While extolling the personal health and community cooperation shown by those who were vaccinated, Brown said a decision to not be vaccinated was a personal choice.

But trying to stop people from getting vaccinated during a declared state public health emergency was not acceptable. Brown said she was aware of the Thursday incident in which anti-vaccination activists heckled students arriving at a school-sponsored clinic at Bend High School. Police were called and the group dispersed.

School staff also received often anonymous messages calling them "Nazis" for approving the vaccinations on the school property. In Oregon, anyone age 15 or older can agree to medical services — including immunization — without parental consent.

Brown said the state of emergency declaration had been called to stop the spread of the virus, and vaccines and other methods used to stamp it out in Oregon. The vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and the best way to stop the crisis that has killed over 575,000 Americans in a little over a year, according to health officials.

"While I am governor, we are going to continue to rely on science and data," she said.

Trying to stop anyone from getting vaccinated is illegal under Oregon law and punitive measures are enhanced by the public health emergency.

"I expect Oregonians to comply with these orders," she said.

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