‘The pandemic is not over’

OSU scientists talk about next stages in COVID mitigation

March 16, 2022 — Among the state’s agencies disseminating COVID-19 information for the past two years is Oregon State University (OSU). On March 14, OSU held a forum with school experts to discuss the current state of the pandemic, including the lifting of mask mandates and steep drops in cases as the omicron variant wanes, and what to expect in the weeks and months ahead

The information was reviewed and presented by a panel consisting of Dr. Alan Brady, infectious disease expert from Samaritan Hospital; April Holland, deputy director of public health from Benton County Health Department; and Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at OSU and professor for Health and Public Policy at OSU.

Jenny Haubenreiser, the OSU executive director of Student Health Services, facilitated the forum, beginning with a brief explanation of the purpose of the meeting. 

“So, we're seeing a shift around the United States right now to move the pandemic response away from emergency management and out of crisis mode. The reasons cited for this shift are many, primarily because the situation is improving across the nation in terms of cases and hospitalizations,” she said. “But we have also made significant progress over the past 2 years in terms of prevention and treatment.”

She said the forum would briefly discuss some changes to the COVID landscape, how responses and rules might change and show context “to help navigate this phase of the pandemic.”

Haubenreiser then insisted, “It's important to be clear, so I want to first express everything we're saying today does not include statements about the pandemic being over. The pandemic is not over. Cases and hospitalization, and deaths, are far beyond what many in public health would consider to be acceptable in a move to endemicity, which is what we hope would be our next phase.”

This shift from suggesting or requiring the use of masks and the exploration of the data prompting that decision was central to the short recaps made by all of the presenters. This included data reflecting the current decreases in positive tests and rates of infection. 

Brady updated viewers on the some of the most recent data he has gathered from Benton County but which is similar to other counties in Oregon.

“There is value in looking at reported cases,” he said.

In the week of March 6, Benton County had a 41% reduction relative to the week before, and the two-week reduction was 67%. 

“So, 58 cases were reported in the in the last week, and that is a really encouraging sign,” Brady said. “Our positivity rate is also low. That is the proportion of tests that come back positive relative to all of the tests performed and reported in the county. That is under 5%, which is where we want to be, and indicates that we are finding cases and demonstrating the burden of disease in the community relatively.” 

Since case rates have decreased sharply and continue to decrease, “Therefore, COVID is causing less stress on the health care system both in terms of hospitalizations — we're down to 7 total hospitalizations across our five hospitals — but also on staffing constraints,” Brady said. “We're beginning, just like everyone else, to think about relaxing protections in non-clinical areas, and also moving to this environment of personal decision making and risk tolerance.”

Chi followed Brady with a more regionally and nationally based overview of the current COVID situation. His areas of expertise include the history of how COVID-19 emerged, the epidemiology of how the COVID-19 pandemic evolved since December 2019 and prevention and protection steps people can practice to limit the spread of the virus.

“On Jan. 28, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a study based on a large population epidemiological study. The populations were from California State and New York State, and this study further confirmed evidence which began to emerge since last summer, that the survivors of a previous infection which results in nature immunity, are stronger when fully vaccinated. And of course the strongest immunity will come from combination of fully vaccinated and a survivor a previous infection,” Chi said. 

In his presentation, Chi also talked about the disparities between economic groups and geographical areas, both in the United States and elsewhere. 

“Eventually, to end this pandemic, we need to keep one thing in mind,” he said. “The pandemic control is not an individual matter. It takes a society. It takes the collective effort to protect everyone and we cannot leave it to individual decisions. So, there's both a government responsibility, and we as a member of the society have a collective responsibility to protect everyone safe.”Chi also provided advice which he hopes will spur more attention and thought to the issue of vaccinations and social distancing.

As she concluded her portion of the meeting, Haubenreiser said, “We can't say exactly what the future holds, and at some point, we will likely face new variants, new challenges to vaccine effectiveness, and masks may be called for again universally. And I'm not here to tell you how you must proceed. Risks vary by individual, by the makeup of our households and by our individual activities.”

For more information on OSU’s COVID-19 research, visit today.oregonstate.edu/news/covid-19-experts.

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