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‘Extreme risk’ restrictions kick in as Oregon leaders fear risk of climbing COVID deaths

Oregon could see 176 more COVID-19 deaths by the end of summer — with most of them concentrated in the next five weeks — if it’s unable to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

That was among the more sobering details to emerge Friday from a news conference conducted by Gov. Kate Brown and her top health care advisers.

It marked the governor’s first news conference since she announced both the extreme-risk restrictions and the extension of Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency order through June 28.

Watch the news conference:

The governor said her decision was informed by concerning trends that have emerged in recent weeks: a doubling of Oregon’s hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients and a rising percentage of serious cases involving younger Oregonians with no underlying health conditions.

“I was presented with data with two paths Oregon could take,” she said. “As your governor, I chose to save lives.”

Brown said that choice is reflected by her enactment temporary limits on indoor restaurant dining and other gatherings within buildings, where the virus is most easily transmitted.

“I recognize this puts many Oregon families and businesses in a difficult place,” she said, adding that she is hoping to lift restrictions statewide “and return to a sense of normality by the end of June.”

The Oregon Health Authority on Friday reported 990 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 184,812 diagnoses since the start of the pandemic. The agency also reported four new COVID-19 related death in Oregon, raising the state’s death toll from the virus to 2,495.

The counties now in Oregon’s extreme risk phase are Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk and Wasco.

The new limits come as more contagious and harmful variants of the coronavirus are spreading and most Oregonians have not yet been fully vaccinated. A majority of unvaccinated Oregonians are under the age of 65. That leaves younger people at risk of contracting the disease and, especially as the newer variants are circulating, experiencing serious, long-lasting complications.

15-year-old Marianna Robins spoke at the press conference about her experiences with long-haul COVID-19.

“My ability to learn was impacted,” Robins said. She also had “memory loss, dizziness, daily migraines” and would sometimes pass out without warning.

Some COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for use in teenagers 16 and over, and all individuals over 16 are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger urged those over 16 to get vaccinated and urged parents to vaccinate younger children once one is approved for their age range.

It is particularly important in light of new evidence that some variants of COVID-19, including the variant dominant in Oregon, has a higher likelihood of causing illness requiring hospitalization, regardless of age group.

It was the high hospitalization rate that triggered the new restrictions. Restaurants, gyms, places of worship and other venues returned to these more limiting pandemic rules Friday in the 15 counties that were moved into Oregon’s extreme risk phase. Those restrictions will be in place through at least next Thursday. Among other things, that means a suspension of indoor dining at restaurants, limited capacity at gyms, pools and sports facilities, a push for more people to move activities outdoors and a renewed call for compliance with standards like masking and maintaining social distancing.

Brown’s decision has been lambasted by many county commissioners and the restaurant and bar sector. They point out more than 1 million Oregonians have now had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination (most require two doses for maximum effectiveness).

The governor said she understands the opposition and is working to make $20 million available in relief for struggling businesses in the 15 counties that have been placed in the extreme risk category.

Speaking Friday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon advised restaurants struggling with the pandemic to register now with the RestaurantRevitalization Fund — so they can be ready to apply at 9 a.m. Monday.

”We think that this is going to be handled on a first-come-first-served basis. And we’re confident with this sort of demand, that the $28.6 billion is not going to meet a lot the national demand,” Blumenauer said.

The Small Business Administration faced difficulties with an earlier program launch, for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, when technical problems forced the launch of the $16 billion program to be suspended. Blumenauer said he thinks the agency is ready to open the restaurant program, and business owners should be, too.

Within the first five hours of pre-registration Friday morning, more than 80,000 restaurants had registered for the program with the Small Business Administration.

An estimated one in every 10 Oregon restaurants has closed this year.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting