Andrea Davila, a nurse at the Kaiser Permanente North Lancaster clinic administers a test for COVID-19 at the clinic's drive-thru testing site on Wednesday, April 29. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

There’s a bit of bright news in Oregon’s Covid pandemic: fewer Oregonians are testing positive for the virus, and fewer people with Covid are ending up in the hospital.

Across the state and in the Salem area, the number of Oregonians newly-diagnosed with Covid has fallen in January after climbing since late October. It’s a sign a winter surge, which health officials said was driven by cooler weather moving people indoors and holiday gatherings, may be coming to an end.

In November, Marion County recorded 3,675 residents with Covid, a sharp increase from the previous one-month high of 1,619 cases in October. Seventy of them later died.

December broke the record again, with 4,456 residents falling sick and 36 deaths, according to a county health department report from last week.

Since the pandemic began in March, 238 county residents have died with Covid – nearly half in November and December.

DOCUMENT: Marion County's Jan. 19 Covid report

But Marion County has seen a 15% decline in new Covid cases so far in January, public health director Katrina Rothenberger told Marion county commissioners last week.

That’s true even as the number of people tested for the virus increased.

“That is very good news for us,” Rothenberger said. She didn't offer a theory for the decline in cases.

As of Jan. 19, the county had recorded 1,425 new Covid cases - less than half of November’s total.

New Covid cases are trending down in Marion County, according to data on the health department's website. (Screenshot from Marion County Health and Human Services)

Still, local counties remain far from the targets needed to loosen business restrictions Gov. Kate Brown put in place in November, which were intended to slow the virus’ spread.

Marion County most recently reported 487 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents over the two-week period ending Jan. 16. That’s the lowest rate since restrictions went into place, but still more than double the state’s target of 200 cases per 100,000 residents needed to lower restrictions.

Polk County most recently reported 460 cases per 100,000 residents in the same period, showing despite recent decreases, the county has a long way to go before indoor dining can resume and gyms and other businesses can reopen.

The number of people hospitalized in the mid-Willamette Valley region, which includes Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties, was 50 as of Jan. 25, down from a peak of 108 on Dec. 6.

The number of people hospitalized with Covid is down in the mid-Willamette Valley area, according to an Oregon Health Authority graph from Jan. 25 (Screenshot from OHA website)

Oregon has recorded three cases of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus to date. The strain, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, has concerned health officials because it appears to spread more easily between people. The recorded cases of that variant so far are in Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties.

Statewide, Oregon has reported a decline in new Covid cases over the past week. The number of Covid tests has fallen slightly, suggesting health authorities may be missing people with mild or asymptomatic cases of Covid, but the percentage of tests that are positive has also decreased, and hospitalizations are lower, meaning fewer people are seriously ill with Covid.

State health officials acknowledged the progress during a news conference Friday, Jan. 22, which was focused on vaccination efforts.

“In the past week, Oregon is the third lowest state in the nation in new case rates. Thank you, Oregonians,” said Rachel Banks, the Oregon Health Authority’s public health division director.

The state began vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents in late December, and has to date vaccinated about 263,000 Oregonians, nearly 41,000 of whom have received both needed doses.

SEE LOCAL COVID DATA: Marion County publishes daily Covid updates on the health department data dashboard and detailed reports twice per month on its website. Polk County has data available on its website. The Oregon Health Authority has data on hospitalization rates, testing rates and more here.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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