A steep drop in COVID-19 infections statewide was reflected Tuesday with 16 Oregon counties improving their infection risk levels. Linn County moved down to moderate risk from high risk.
"Moving from high risk to moderate risk seemed unthinkable two weeks ago. It is great news for our community," said Roger Nyquist, chair of the Linn County Board of Commissioners. "We continue to make progress with vaccines, (and) hopefully the supply lines will open up soon. I sense the citizens of Linn County are determined to get through this and back to life as we know it. The lower positive test numbers reflect that determination."
Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday that 10 of the state's 36 counties were dropping off the extreme risk tier, although Benton County and four others remain in the extreme category.
The moves mean that restrictions on businesses, dining and activities will be less strict on Friday for a long list of Oregon cities (see information box). Among the cities that will see fewer restrictions are Albany, Lebanon, Sweet Home, Eugene, Salem, Medford, Beaverton, McMinnville, Ontario, Oregon City, The Dalles, Pendleton, Astoria, Lincoln City, La Grande, Hermiston and Prineville.
"We are seeing great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 across Oregon and saving lives," Brown said. "Oregonians continue to step up and make smart choices."
Five counties — Jefferson (Madras), Benton (Corvallis), Josephine (Grants Pass), Douglas (Roseburg) and Coos (Coos Bay) — remain at the extreme risk level. That compares to 26 counties in late November at the height of the holiday spike in infections.
"Once again, our case numbers are trending in the right direction, but simply not changing fast enough," said Xan Augerot, chair of the Benton County Board of Commissioners. Augerot added that the numbers are heavily influenced by positive tests at Oregon State University, although she also praised the university's efforts.
"They are doing a fantastic job at testing, tracing and containing infections," Augerot said, citing OSU's random sampling, mandatory testing and asymptomatic testing.
"This OSU testing is on top of that being conducted by Benton County, Samaritan Health Services, the Corvallis Clinic and others prior to procedures or for symptomatic cases. As a result, we are concerned that we may in effect be being punished as a community for the intensity of testing we are doing."
Augerot said the county was working with the Oregon Health Authority on potential changes to the metrics to account for testing intensity and "we are simultaneously voicing our concerns with the governor’s office."
"We know that this very long period in extreme risk is putting our businesses, particularly restaurants, under incredible stress, and the situation seems inequitable for our Benton residents who have done such a great job masking, maintaining sanitation and keeping socially distanced."
The state's four-tier risk structure rates counties at lower, moderate, high and extreme levels for COVID-19 spread. Ranking is determined by measures including total cases, cases per 100,000 people and positive infection rate. The higher the level, the more restrictive the rules on businesses and activities.
The levels are adjusted every two weeks. The ratings announced Feb 9 expire Thursday. The new ratings go into effect Friday. The next level changes will be announced March 9 and will go into effect March 12.
Some of the state's most populous counties improved their levels. Washington and Clackamas counties near Portland moved from high to moderate risk. Multnomah County, which includes Portland, was just above the cutoff point for cases per 100,000.
Major counties moving off the extreme level list to high level include Umatilla (Pendleton), Lane (Eugene, Springfield and Florence), Marion (Salem), Jackson (Medford and Ashland) and Linn (Albany).
The risk levels are part of a spate of good news on the COVID-19 front.
Case have dropped 44% nationwide over the past 14 days, according to the New York Times survey of state health agencies. Deaths are down 28% in the same period.
Oregon was part of the trend, with a 34% drop in cases and a 54% decline in deaths.
Oregon continues to rank 49th out of 50 states on a key measure that averages cases over seven days and adjusts the number for infections per 100,000 people.
Oregon has nine cases per 100,000. Only Hawaii, with three, had a lower mark. Among Oregon's neighbors, Washington and Nevada each had 11. California was at 17. The worst rates were in South Carolina at 46 and New York at 38.
Public health officials are hopeful that the trend will continue as the slow pace of vaccination picks up in coming months. But experts remain concerned about a spate of variants that spread faster and may be more virulent. One first discovered in the United Kingdom has been reported in three cases in Oregon.
Mid-Valley Media reporter James Day contributed to this report.