Was it the playground he brought his 19-month-old son to daily, with germy surfaces and many younger park-goers not wearing masks?
Or was it the day he called a tow truck after his tire blew out on the freeway and, with no other way to get home, accepted a ride from the driver?
“I didn’t think about how many people he sees in a day who might sit in his car,” said Blashishin, adding that he wore a mask while the driver didn’t.
Days later, Blashishin tested positive for COVID-19. He ultimately spread the virus to his wife and he believes a friend, who was forced to isolate away from his 11-month-old daughter for 10 days but ended up giving it to her anyway.
“I felt guilty for the longest time,” Blashishin said.
Blashishin is one of more than 28,000 Oregonians known to be infected so far in a fourth wave of coronavirus cases that began building about eight weeks ago.
While new known cases and hospitalizations have been declining in the United States as a whole, Oregon now finds itself as an outlier. Oregon cases are up roughly 30% and hospitalizations 40% in the past two weeks. Both have roughly tripled since the lows of early March.
New infections are, in fact, accelerating faster in Oregon than in any other state in the nation. Cases per capita in the past two weeks are the 13th highest even though Oregon has recorded the third lowest rate of infections since the beginning of the pandemic.
Confounding public health experts is why cases are dramatically rising in Oregon when – in line with the rest of the nation – about 30% of residents are now fully vaccinated.
Officials at the Oregon Health Authority suspect Oregon’s relatively low rate of infections for most of the rest of the pandemic have left a larger proportion of the population more susceptible to the virus. On top of that, the much more contagious B.1.1.7 variant – now the dominant strain in Oregon and the nation as of early April – is allowing the virus to transmit with greater ease. Some studies have found it also causes more severe disease.
Whatever the reason, Oregon’s spring surge so far has been far less devastating than the fall and winter – with daily cases averaging a little over half of their earlier highs. And deaths are just a fraction of the December peak.
Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that while fewer seniors are being hospitalized thanks to their higher rates of vaccination, the proportion of hospitalized patients who are between the ages of 18 and 34 has grown by almost 50% recently.
“COVID-19 is now knocking more younger people off their feet,” Brown said.
The demographics of people infected by coronavirus are similarly shifting.
Compared to the months-long fall surge, Oregon has seen a significantly smaller percentage of cases among Oregonians 60 and older. The state, meanwhile, continues to post robust numbers of new cases among 20-somethings, who continue to represent the highest share of infections.
Like many Oregonians, Blashishin, 26, will never know the source of his infection for sure.
Blashishin said he accepted the ride from the tow-truck driver only because his wife’s car was out of commission and getting home would have required a very long walk from Interstate 205.
Six days later, he felt chills and some mild congestion. He brushed it off as spring allergies, which hit him every year around that time.
He wore a mask when he rode in the car the next day with his friend to visit a trading-card shop – the first time in more than a year the two had ventured out in a car together. It’s a trip that the friend, Max Virnig, chalks up to maybe “a little bit of pandemic fatigue.”
Several days later, Blashishin was eating a bowl of soup when he was overcome with the realization that he’d lost his sense of taste. He grabbed a bottle of vinegar and sniffed.
He got tested. It came back positive for COVID-19, he said. His wife tested positive a day later, similarly losing her sense of taste and smell while feeling like she had a cold. Their toddler tested negative.
“I should have been smarter, but I thought it was allergies,” Blashishin said.
Virnig tested positive around the same time in March, then his 11-month-old daughter in early April, although neither experienced symptoms. Blashishin has repeatedly expressed how sorry he is.
“He’s told me that so many times,” said Virnig, 30, a Southeast Portland resident. “I told him, ‘It’s fine.’ I keep stopping him. ‘Dude, it happened, we can’t go back and now we’re here.’”
Both friends were surprised they caught the virus after so many months of living what they consider very cautious lives. They say as dads of young children, they don’t go to parties or bars.
“I don’t go places without a mask,” Virnig said. “I’ve only been out to a restaurant once in over a year.”
Said Blashishin: “Man, we went a whole year without getting anything. It’s funny to me to think you could go so long and be so cautious and then there’s one little thing, and you get it.”
Oregon’s spring surge has seen a notable drop in the share of coronavirus cases among older residents and, in particular, those 80 and older.
That age group has always represented a minuscule share of total cases – less than 4% – while accounting for more than half of all COVID-19 deaths.
But the case share for Oregonians 80 and older has been cut by more than half, to 1.7% since early March. That’s almost certainly due to vaccinations of Oregon’s eldest residents that began in February.
The percentage of cases also has dipped among younger seniors, extending to those in their 60s.
Savanna Morrow looks at the selfie her 58-year-old father, Mike Heskett, texted her from his bed at Oregon Health & Science University’s Hillsboro Medical Center, shortly after he was admitted there in early April.
Morrow knows he was trying to look upbeat, but she could see the uncertainty in his eyes.
“My dad is just this very healthy, vital person and seeing him lying in a hospital bed at all, it was hard,” said Morrow, 33. “And I know my dad was trying to make it seem like he was better than he really was.”
Morrow, who is her father’s primary caregiver during his bout with COVID-19, is awed at how swiftly the disease took over their lives. One morning in late March he came down with a bit of congestion and immediately started to isolate within the Hillsboro home he shares with Morrow, her mother and her brother, Morrow said.
He called into the manufacturing plant where he works as a quality-control inspector and was told to get tested because someone else had just tested positive for the virus. Morrow said her father ultimately became part of a larger outbreak.
By day three, Heskett felt like he had pneumonia, his blood oxygen level had plummeted into the danger zone of the 80s and he was gasping for air as Morrow’s brother – masked up and with the car windows rolled down – drove him to the medical center, Morrow said.
By day five, Heskett was thinking about what to say in his final good-byes. But he no longer had the strength to talk to Morrow or her mom by phone. He attempted to draft his messages, he later told them, by text, but he was too weak to hold his phone up and type while lying in his hospital bed.
“He was so sure he was going to lose that fight,” Morrow said. “It was so hard to hear him admit that. It still makes me shake when I talk about it.”
But the farewells didn’t turn out to be necessary. Her dad’s fortunes turned, and he was able to come home April 9 – beginning his slow recovery, Morrow said.
Beyond Heskett’s lung damage, misfiring taste buds (bacon tastes like rubber) and overwhelming fatigue, the virus has been financially devastating to their lives. The medical bills for his nearly week-long hospital stay add up to $36,000, Morrow said, and she knows thousands of that won’t be covered by insurance.
There’s also the time off from work that has hit her father hard. This past week he returned to the facility part-time, but he ended up having to nap during breaks even though his employer allowed him to sit for most of his shift, Morrow said.
Morrow thinks of the small blessings – the Native American Youth and Family Center that has brought them food and groceries. Both her parents, Morrow said, are of Native American descent.
She also thinks of how her dad appears to be the only one who got sick in their household. Although Morrow said only her father was tested, she thinks at least her 60-year-old mother would have shown symptoms if infected because her chronic pulmonary obstructive disease puts her at high risk for severe disease.
That has been a big motivator, Morrow said, for the family to wear masks, wash their hands and keep their distance from others throughout the pandemic.
“We were so careful, we thought it was really unlikely it would enter our lives,” Morrow said.
Morrow has watched in frustration as apathy about the virus and the vaccines appears to have grown.
“I hear so many people talking online: ‘It’s not really a big problem because I’m so healthy’ or ‘I’m careful in public, it will be fine,’” Morrow said. “It’s hard for it to be real until it enters your life and reshapes your reality.”
Public health experts say younger people are more likely to socialize with others outside their household, are less worried about adverse effects from COVID-19 and are less likely to want to get a vaccine.
One survey has found that fewer than 50% of people ages 18 to 29 say they have already been vaccinated or want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared to 82% of people 65 and older.
Some medical experts say because B.1.1.7 is so much more contagious than previous strains, precautions – such as the distance one person stands from another – is no longer as safe as it once was.
Oregon City resident Forrest Murphy, 27, spent the winter working in the kitchen of an assisted-living facility that — like so many in Oregon and across the country — was ravaged by the pandemic last year.
Three people died and 32 people linked to the facility were infected, according to health authority records.
“It’s a high-risk community, but they tested every week,” Murphy said. “I got like 20 tests.”
He said when he had a chance to get his first shot of Pfizer vaccine in early February, he was relieved. Three weeks later, he got his second dose. By March 12, two more weeks had passed, and he was considered fully vaccinated.
But in the end, it wasn’t the assisted-living facility where Murphy thinks he was exposed. It was hanging out with one unvaccinated friend at each other’s homes — something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is considered safe because Murphy is fully vaccinated.
Murphy said by late March, he’d started coughing. It felt like a miserable cold or the start of seasonal allergies.
“Crummy,” said Murphy, summing it up in one word.
When he woke up one day and couldn’t taste or smell, he wondered if it was possible he’d caught COVID-19. He went to urgent care in early April, got a rapid test and it came back positive.
Stunned and not wanting to expose anyone else, Murphy said he made the 15-minute walk back home.
“I almost passed out,” Murphy said. “I was not feeling OK. I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.”
Murphy is a “breakthrough case” — one of a minute number of Americans who’ve been fully vaccinated but still tested positive for the coronavirus. In Oregon, officials announced 168 fully vaccinated people who have been infected, including 19 who were hospitalized and three who died as of early April.
That’s 0.024% of the 700,000 residents who’d already been fully immunized at the time — figures so small that officials said they were “good news.”
The health authority only releases figures once a month, with the next announcement due in the next week.
Nationwide, the CDC reports an even tinier percentage, with just over 7,000 of 87 million fully vaccinated Americans infected, although officials acknowledge it’s an undercount because someone with no symptoms isn’t likely to be tested.
“I guess I’m just part of that unlucky percentage,” said Murphy.
He said plenty of friends have asked Murphy about his experience getting sick despite his vaccination status. He tells them no vaccine is 100% effective and he believes in the COVID-19 vaccines. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective.
He doesn’t want to be used as a reason people don’t get the vaccines.
“My friend told me that made up his mind: ‘I’m not going to get the vaccine now,’” Murphy said. “I’m like ‘No, no, no, no. Don’t have that opinion. … Kids don’t get polio anymore because of vaccines. I think vaccines are still really, really important and people should definitely get them.”
It’s unclear if Murphy was infected by a more contagious variant, such as B.1.1.7, which some research shows is slightly more successful at evading the effectiveness of vaccines. The Oregon Health Authority says it analyzes breakthrough cases for variants if there’s enough sample material available. Murphy has never heard anything from health officials about whether genomic sequencing was done on his sample, or what the results were.
Murphy said he feels fortunate to have had just quit his job at the assisted living facility, and he said he feels relieved not to have exposed anyone there.
At final count, he said he’s been able to trace the infections to at least half a dozen friends and family in a viral chain – starting with his friend’s aunt, who infected his friend, who infected his wife and Murphy, who infected another friend and his roommate. His roommate’s daughter, who didn’t show symptoms, visited her grandmother, who soon tested positive.
“It’s insane how contagious this disease is,” Murphy said. “It’s just astounding.”