This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.
Oregonians can expect another surge in COVID-19 cases in June, a top Oregon health official said Thursday.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the Oregon Health Authority’s chief epidemiologist, said two variants named XBB.1.16 and XBB.1.9 that are sweeping across other countries, especially India, have not yet turned up in DNA analyses of the virus in Oregon. But the state expects them to emerge and cause a surge of cases in June, peaking at the end of the month. But that forecast could change, he said.
“This is a long-term forecast – in COVID terms – and I expect to see adjustments in the numbers over the coming months as we learn more about infections from these variants,” Sidelinger said in a news conference.
In the meantime, the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday approved updated boosters from Moderna and Pfizer that are designed to work against omicron spinoffs like the two new variants. After approval by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the shots should be available in Oregon, perhaps as soon as this week, health authority spokesman Jonathan Modie told the Capital Chronicle.
The shots are only authorized for those 65 and older or people older than 5 with compromised immune systems four months after they have received their last dose. Scientists say the new variants are the most infectious yet and could cause more severe symptoms.
About 400,000 people qualify for an updated booster, Modie said.
Sidelinger expects that new shots will be recommended for all Oregonians in the fall.
Nearly 80% of Oregon adults have received one COVID shot, and 70% have completed the series. But less than one-quarter of adults have received a booster.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has wound down, with life largely back to normal, Sidelinger said.
“We will still see infections,” he said. “We will still recommend wearing masks sometimes to protect people around us at higher risk of severe COVID outcomes, and some settings, such as health care facilities, may still have policies requiring that masks be worn.”
The federal public health emergency ends May 11, which means the end of pandemic support from the federal government, including subsidizing the vaccines.
Pfizer plans to sell its COVID vaccine for $110 to $130 a dose, the company said last year. The vaccines will be covered by insurance policies because they are listed on vaccine schedules for adults and children by the CDC but patients could face co-pays. That could happen in early fall for the vaccines and by the end of the year for treatment medications, Sidelinger said.
“We are developing a plan to ensure a smooth transition to commercialized COVID-19 vaccine,” Sidelinger said.
Sidelinger said federal authorities plan to allocate money to help people without insurance pay for the shots.
The Oregon Health Authority does not plan to hold any vaccine events. Booster doses should be available through Oregon’s health care system, local public health authorities, community-based organizations, federally qualified health centers and pharmacies, Modie said.
Electronic vaccine cards, used by tens of thousands of Oregonians as proof of vaccination, will no longer be updated after May 11, when the federal COVID health emergency ends. Sidelinger advised Oregonians to get any shots or boosters they qualify for before then.
To date, the state has logged nearly 973,000 cases of COVID and 9,530 deaths. There will be more, Sidelinger said.
Hospitalizations have slowed over the past year, dropping below the 200 mark on March 20 for the first time since last May, Sidelinger said. As of Tuesday, 172 hospitalized patients had COVID. That compares with 1,178 people hospitalized with COVID on Sept. 1, 2021, the state’s peak.
“We’ve come a long way,” Sidelinger said.
The health authority plans no more regular briefings on COVID.
“We can now return to those activities and functions we all enjoyed before the pandemic began in early 2020, but some may continue to make some changes to protect their health and the health of those around them,” Sidelinger said.