Fourth vaccine option arriving soon

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Jul. 20—State health officials say a newly authorized coronavirus vaccine made in a similar way to traditional viral vaccines could arrive in Oregon as soon as this week, albeit in limited numbers.

Novavax's new traditional protein-based vaccine uses technology similar to vaccines made for shingles, hepatitis and flu — as opposed to the mRNA technology used in Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Oregon State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said the vaccine is expected to arrive for adults in limited quantities "in the coming week or so."

"I'm excited for folks to have a choice," Sidelinger said at the Oregon Health Authority's monthly webinar Wednesday.

The new vaccine, which works by injecting copies of coronavirus spike proteins made in a lab into the patient, was authorized for emergency use by federal regulators last week and endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday.

During the news briefing Wednesday, Sidelinger talked of the new vaccine, the state's strained hospital system, the rise of COVID-19 variant BA.5 to prominence in the state and a growing monkeypox epidemic that so far has led to 32 cases in Oregon.

Sidelinger said Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 still are spreading rapidly in Oregon, with BA.5 now the dominant coronavirus variant. The CDC lists Jackson County among 21 Oregon counties at the high level of community spread.

Sidelinger said COVID-19 case numbers are holding steady and straining hospitals across the state, and tests for the coronavirus in wastewater shows "high levels of COVID-19 in our community statewide."

Daily reported case counts largely have held steady across the state over the past month, with 1,455 cases reported June 17 and 1,430 reported July 19.

Test positivity rates rose slightly in Oregon over the past month, rising to 13.9% the week of July 17 compared with 12.6% the week of June 17.

Sidelinger estimated that 6% of the state's residents currently are infected with or recovering from COVID-19.

"That includes hospital staff," Sidelinger said.

Statewide, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has gradually increased from 309 June 17 to 424 Wednesday.

Locally, 41 people were hospitalized Wednesday with COVID-19 in Oregon Hospital Region No. 5, which covers hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties. The number is a dip from the 59 people hospitalized July 10, the highest number for the month.

The statewide numbers are well below half the numbers the state faced during the delta surge late last summer and the omicron surge earlier this year, but the prolonged impacts of the illness has caused burnout and turnover among hospital staff.

"Hospitals are not feeling out of the woods," Sidelinger said.

Despite the strain, OHA anticipates the state has sufficient hospital capacity, but asks Oregonians to take precautions to limit strain, such as staying up to date with vaccinations, wearing masks in crowded settings and considering "changing or postponing activities that promote spread while COVID-19 rates are high."

Although health officials are seeing many breakthrough cases — infections in people who are fully vaccinated — Sidelinger said vaccines still protect people from severe cases of the illness that lead to hospitalization.

"Even with the new variant, whether it was delta, the initial omicron variant and now the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, they're still providing significant protection against severe disease and even the likelihood of dying," Sidelinger said.

Sidelinger also provided updates on the human monkeypox virus, which as of Wednesday was linked to 32 cases in four Oregon counties: Lane, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas.

Sidelinger said the virus is not easily spread.

The Oregon cases that have developed over the past month predominantly involve men who have sex with men. Sidelinger said the virus spreads through prolonged skin-to-skin contact, such as during sexual activity.

"This is not something to add to your worry list if you don't engage in those risky behaviors," Sidelinger said.

Vaccines limit the severity of monkeypox — even for those newly infected — but limited quantities of the vaccine are available. Sidelinger said OHA has done extensive outreach to Multnomah County LGBTQ+ organizations in the Portland metro area to distribute available vaccines equitably.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.