Clark County residents should wear masks when indoors to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, according to new federal health guidance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised Clark County’s COVID-19 risk level from “medium” to “high” on Friday. It is the first time Clark County has been listed as high risk since the omicron surge last winter.
Recommendations for high-risk counties include wearing a well-fitted mask indoors in public regardless of vaccination status, staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters and following CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine, including getting tested if you are exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19
The CDC determines a county’s risk level based on its current number of cases, hospitalizations and overall hospital occupancy.
Clark County managed to avoid entering high-risk status over the past few months, even as surrounding counties were listed as high risk. As of Friday, six Washington counties were at high risk, and 19 were at medium risk.
Clark County’s COVID-19 activity rate, which measures new cases per 100,000 population over seven days, rose from 159.1 last week to 196.1 as of Thursday, according to Clark County Public Health data.
Disease activity is likely much higher due to unreported at-home tests, according to Dr. Steven Krager, deputy health officer for Clark County Public Health.
“This is an opportunity to recognize that we are experiencing high levels of transmission, and we’ve probably been at high levels for a while now and the CDC’s tracking is just now catching up to that,” he said. “We know we’re missing a lot of cases being reported because of at-home tests.”
At-home tests are still a great way to determine whether you have COVID-19, Krager said. If you test positive for COVID-19 with an at-home test, you can call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127 to report your positive result.
The rise in disease activity is likely due to omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which are circulating widely throughout Oregon and Washington, according to Dr. Katie Sharff, chief of Infectious Disease for Kaiser Permanente in Portland.
Between June 19 and June 25, BA.5 represented 35 percent of all cases in Washington, according to the Washington State Department of Health, and the variant has been detected in Clark County, according to Krager.
“These subvariants are the most contagious that we have seen in the pandemic,” Sharff said. “BA.4 and BA.5 are masters of immune evasion, which increases risk of reinfection, even if you are fully vaccinated or previously had a COVID-19 infection.”
Disease activity will likely continue to rise as the variants circulate, Krager said.
“We are not in a place where lots of people are wearing masks or avoiding activities, so it’s an easier setting for transmission to happen,” he said.
New hospitalizations in Clark County this week fell from 10.6 to 9.8 per 100,000 residents over seven days, but overall hospitalizations remain high, according to Public Health.
As of Tuesday, 95.2 percent of Clark County hospital beds and 100 percent of ICU beds were occupied. Hospitals reported that 62 beds — accounting for 11.4 percent of hospital beds and 11.3 percent of ICU beds — were occupied by people with or suspected of having COVID-19, according to Public Health.
“Going above 10 per 100,000, it’s not the highest we’ve seen, but it’s also not the lowest,” Krager said. “We have elevated hospitalizations in spite of the large amount of background immunity we have from vaccinations and previous infections.”
Despite high levels of reinfection among vaccinated people and people who have been previously infected, getting vaccinated and boosted still provides the best protection against severe disease, according to Krager.
“Every time you get infected is like throwing the dice,” he said. “Even for healthier people, the body can overrespond and you can get very sick. [Clark County] still has tons of people who haven’t been boosted or vaccinated, and those are the people who are being hospitalized. People are still dying. Now is a great time for a booster or to get vaccinated.”
Additionally, Krager recommends that people who are at risk for severe disease contact their medical provider about receiving medication like Paxlovid, which is now widely available in Washington.
Clark County Public Health follows the CDC’s guidance, meaning Public Health now recommends wearing a mask in indoor public settings.
“People should follow the CDC’s guidelines,” Krager said. “If you want to lower the risk of transmission, masking is one of the best ways.”