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Politics

Gov. Kate Brown On Oregon's COVID-19 Spike

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You might be feeling a mild case of whiplash if you're trying to keep up with Oregon and how the pandemic is going there. Less than two weeks ago, Governor Kate Brown extended Oregon's state of emergency for COVID until June 28. The state was battling a fourth surge. Hospitalizations had jumped by more than a third. And the governor banned indoor dining in cities, including in Portland and in Eugene.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Then came yesterday. Governor Brown rolled out a plan to reopen the state in June if 70% percent of residents aged 16 and older have gotten at least one dose of vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE BROWN: That means no more county risk levels and a lifting of most restrictions, including capacity limits for venues and businesses and limits on group sizes.

KELLY: That was Governor Brown speaking yesterday. And she is with us here today.

Governor Brown, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BROWN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: So it does feel like quite the turnaround from thinking state of emergency in June to we're going to reopen in June. And I wonder, with cases and hospitalizations still pretty high, what gives you confidence it is not too soon?

BROWN: Oregon's, unfortunately, saw a late fourth surge in recent weeks, and my administration acted very quickly to preserve our hospital bed capacity and ensure that we had adequate staffing for those hospital beds. But Oregonians really stepped up - continued to wear masks, made sure they were social distanced and got vaccinated. And now the good news is - is that our hospitalizations have stabilized, and our infection rates are dropping. You may know that throughout the entire pandemic, Oregon had some of the lowest infection rates and some of the lowest mortality rates in the country. We have continued to follow science and data to preserve lives and to protect public health.

KELLY: Which is why this fourth surge was so striking and was making national headlines. Let me pick up on something you noted, which is people are getting vaccinated, which is great. But you're still a ways away from 70% of residents aged 16 and up getting at least one dose of the vaccine. And I gather demand is slowing, not rising. What gives you confidence you can reach this goal?

BROWN: We just surpassed 2 million first doses today. So we are very excited about that. We right now have 58% of Oregonians over the age of 16 that have one vaccine in their arms. And we are continuing to vaccinate at a pace of roughly 34,000 vaccines a day. So I am confident that we can meet this goal.

KELLY: How did you arrive at the 70% as the threshold? I'm asking because I've seen some experts now estimating that the threshold for herd immunity is 80% in part because of these more transmissible variants that are spreading.

BROWN: Let me make it perfectly clear - 70% with one vaccine in their arms is not herd immunity. But according to our professionals and medical experts, that is a level that which we can slow transmission of the virus, and we can ensure that we have adequate hospital bed capacity and health care workers to staff those beds.

KELLY: What kind of reaction are you hearing from business leaders?

BROWN: People are really excited about reopening Oregon. It's been a really tough year. There's no question about it. Our business community, Oregonians across the state, all have made really good choices and smart decisions to protect themselves, their family members and their vulnerable community members. And the stats bear that out.

KELLY: And you think what's making the difference now, as opposed to just a couple of weeks ago where things sounded very much more grim - it's people making good decisions, but it sounds also like it's people getting vaccinated.

BROWN: Absolutely. It's all of the above. The other challenge we saw, frankly, during the fourth surge was the variants, right? These variants were substantially more transmissible and, unfortunately, probably the impact of the variants more severe. And we saw case rates go from a couple of hundred cases a day to close to 600 to 800 in very short time frame. So what I'm pleased to say is, unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, the variants were winning. Now what is really clear is that Oregonians are continuing to step up to get vaccines, and we're going to beat this back.

KELLY: Kate Brown. She is a Democrat. And she's the governor of Oregon.

Governor, thank you.

BROWN: Thank you so much. Honored to be with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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