Doctor reflects on 2-year anniversary of first COVID diagnosis in Oregon

Monday, February 28 marks the 2-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 diagnosis in Oregon....
Monday, February 28 marks the 2-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 diagnosis in Oregon. Dr. Katie Sharff, Chief of Infectious Disease at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, diagnosed Hector Calderon in 2020.
Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 6:44 PM PST
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - Monday, February 28 marks the 2-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 diagnosis in Oregon. Dr. Katie Sharff, Chief of Infectious Disease at Kaiser Permanente Northwest, diagnosed Hector Calderon in 2020.

Calderon spent more than two months at the Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center. Calderon worked at Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego, where Sharff’s son was a student.

“It almost feels like a lifetime ago,” Sharff said. “I was there just delivering a greeting card and then I got involved professionally. It’s a crazy, kind of serendipitous story of making that diagnosis. At that time, I thought, as we all thought, that this would be a short disease, where there would be a couple of weeks or a couple of months where we shutdown and then things would go back to normal. As we all know that projection did not hold true.”

“As we enter year 3 of this pandemic, we continue to see surges and new variants arise. I think it’s really shifted the perspective, at least for myself, both personally and professionally. Science is always evolving, and we cannot always predict what will happen, but we have to be able to pivot and be dynamic and make changes to accommodate the challenges that are put in our path. It really has been a couple of years of learning and shifting perspective. There has also been a lot of suffering, but I have a sense of optimism that we are moving forward, and we have learned so much between safe and effective vaccines and improved testing capacity and treatment that I am optimistic that things will be brighter ahead,” Sharff said

Following the Omicron surge in January, with a peak in late January, Sharff said the COVID cases have continued to go down in February.

“Over the past month, I think OHA released last week, that new infections have declined 80% and hospitalizations are declining as well,” Sharff said. “What we are seeing here at Kaiser Permanente reflects those numbers that OHA is reporting. We are seeing less hospitalized individuals with COVID, less cases, percent positivity in terms of testing in our own Kaiser Permanente lab in much lower.”

Monday it was announced that Oregon and Washington would both lift indoor mask mandates on March 12. Dr. Sharff says we are not where we were two years ago; we now have improved tools to fight against COVID-19, but some may still choose to wear their mask in public.

“We have safe and effective vaccines, we have improved testing, we have treatment both for patients in the hospital and for individuals diagnosed in the outpatient setting,” Sharff said. “With regards to mask mandates, I understand why we are seeing this decision to remove masks as cases rapidly decline, but what I would say is that mask mandates are not a one size fits all. Everyone has different risk-benefit tolerance and not every individual is the same or has the same amount of risk. There are some individuals who are immuno-compromised, have underlying health conditions, or are not eligible for vaccines who do not feel ready to remove their masks. I think as community members, as neighbors, we need to respect that within the community and understand that some individuals would rather keep their masks on.”

Sharff said there is talk around the healthcare community about COVID becoming endemic, like the flu.

“I think that would be a best-case scenario where we have this endemic state where we live with COVID,” Sharff said. “As we all have seen, science and medicine is unpredictable. I would not be surprised to see another variant emerge that is either more transmissible or evades the immunity provided but vaccines or natural immunity and we have another surge. We may need to re-engage in those public health measures like wearing masks or avoiding large gatherings. Masks will come off for the near future, but we need to be dynamic and be able to pivot if we see cases rising again or a new variant emerge, and we need to be prepared if that turns out to be the case in the near future.”

Reflecting on the last two years, Sharff said life, medicine and science is unpredictable and always changing.

“You have to be able to take it one day at a time and pivot when needed as new challenges come your way,” Sharff said. “Science is messy. Science is unpredictable. This pandemic has also brought up other questions, like what will care delivery look like going forward? We have had a lot of change to virtual medicine, telemedicine and seeing if that’s the best platform for our patients. We are seeing how we integrate virtual and telemedicine going forward. Additionally, we also have to make up a lot of preventative care that we missed. Preventative cancer screenings, chronic disease care, health maintenance. We are looking at how we are going to make up all that lost care that had to be less prioritized during the pandemic with a critical staffing shortage in healthcare.”

Going forward, Sharff said rebuilding trust between the community and public healthcare professionals will be essential.

“We have been seeing science evolve in real-time and at times the messaging has been confusing or rapidly changing,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think there has been a loss of confidence in public health. I would say it is critical that we re-establish that confidence in public health and that understanding in the time of a pandemic, we are operating with the information we have to make the best decisions available. At times, we will get more information down the road, and we will change that guidance. With medicine and public health, we are just trying to make the best choices we have with the information available. Rebuilding that trust and confidence in public health will be critical going forward. Not just for this pandemic, but for preventive care and healthcare in the future.”