For Oregonians Who’ve Never Had COVID, Is a Bout with the Virus Inevitable?

Weighing the landscape, with BA.2 on the horizon

By Julia Silverman March 21, 2022

Browsing at the downtown flagship of Powell's Books during the COVID pandemic

It’s only been a little over a week since Oregon lifted its statewide indoor mask mandate, and early indicators suggest that increasing numbers of the state's residents are choosing to go maskless at the grocery store, restaurants, gyms, offices, and nightclubs. 

But with rising concern from Europe and the East Coast about the more transmissible—though still relatively mild, particularly for the vaccinated and boosted—BA.2 subvariant, Oregonians who’ve thus far managed to escape getting COVID-19 might be wondering how much longer they can dodge the virus. 

The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that about 43 percent of people in the United States have been infected with coronavirus—though many more may have been carrying the virus and not realized it, since roughly 40 percent of cases present as asymptomatic.  

Everyone isn’t guaranteed to wind up with the virus at some stage, says Dr. Bill Messer, an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and of medicine (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine. But avoiding it forever depends on how much risk you’re willing to expose yourself to—or, put another way, how many of life’s prepandemic rituals and joys you’re forgoing, as you weigh your own risks, including age and comorbidities. 

“If you haven't gotten COVID [yet], it’s either just blind luck, or a series of measures that you've taken that really aren't sustainable,” Messer says. “If you’d like to go to live events, like concerts and restaurants, and all of those things, at some point, we're going to have to let go or at least back off on some of the things that we've been really stringent on.” 

Messer says he counts himself among the number of people who are vaccinated and boosted and—to the best of his knowledge—have yet to get COVID. During our current lull, when case numbers are low and COVID-related hospitalizations continue to fall, he says he’s made some calculated risks: He’s willing to go out to dinner on less crowded Tuesday nights, for example, but avoids a packed Saturday-night crowd. 

That could shift, though, if and when the BA.2 subvariant makes its way to the state. Surveillance of sewer waste, a reliable indicator throughout the course of the pandemic, is already showing a noticeable uptick in the presence of BA.2 on the East Coast. The Oregon Health Authority’s wastewater data has not been recently updated, but wastewater surveillance efforts coordinated by Oregon State University have shown a recent bump in COVID levels in the Portland metro area and the Willamette Valley. 

Working in Oregon’s favor this time around: an estimated 87 percent of the state now has some level of immunity to severe infection, whether from vaccination and/or prior infection, many such infections quite recent thanks to the transmissibility of omicron. 

That could mean that even if a spike in cases is coming, the state’s hospitalization system is cushioned from another buckle, Messer says, though, as ever, those who have not yet been vaccinated (particularly those over the age of 65 who are neither vaccinated nor recovered from a previous infection) remain at serious risk. 

“When the next surge comes along, people who've been vaccinated but have not been infected, I think, are going to have some susceptibility to infection in spite of their vaccination,” Messer says. “But I think the protection against the things that we're really worried about—severe disease—is still going to be there for most people.” 

Meanwhile, if you’re still waiting for your first recognizable bout with COVID, there are benefits to having delayed this long: New treatments are coming on board, experts are learning more about the virus every day, including how to treat long COVID, and decisions about whether further booster shots might offer additional protection against future surges are upcoming.  

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