Infections and hospitalizations are surging and are expected to rise higher but after that the state’s epidemiologist sees a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’
By Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Oregon’s short-term COVID-19 outlook remains bleak, Oregon’s lead epidemiologist said Friday, with hospitals nearing a peak in the demand for hospital beds and case counts skyrocketing.
But after that, the situation could improve, according to Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist.
“The omicron variant continues to cut a destructive swath through Oregon, fueling steadily rising hospitalizations, record-shattering daily cases and a staggering test positivity rate,” Sidelinger said in an online news conference. “There is some light at the end of this very dark tunnel. The recent modeling suggests that cases could peak within the next week or so and hospitalizations, a lagging indicator, peaking in the following week.”
Sidelinger is basing his outlook on projections by Peter Graven, assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University, who released his latest forecast on Thursday. Graven expects a peak of about 1,550 people hospitalized for COVID on Feb. 1. If the subsequent trend in Oregon follows those in East Coast states, where omicron hit earlier, hospitalizations would then fall rapidly.
Graven’s forecast shows omicron hospitalizations dropping to about 300 people by the end of February, which compares with the numbers in early August before the delta surge or in late December before the rise in omicron hospitalizations.
In the meantime, Sidelinger indicated that the Oregon Health Authority intends to forge ahead with making permanent the indoor mask requirement that was put in place on a temporary basis Nov. 23 and would expire Feb. 9 without new state action.
Sidelinger said the state will rescind the rule when conditions improve, repeating a message from Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, last week in testimony to a legislative committee.
“Because it’s a permanent rule does not mean it will be here forever,” Sidelinger said. Republican leaders in the Oregon House have called for the health authority to set benchmarks that would determine when the rule would be lifted, and they called on supporters to speak out during a public comment period. The Associated Press reported 350 people participated in the state hearing, opposing the rule.
Sidelinger said the state will take comments made at Thursday’s hearing into consideration. He said state officials didn’t intend to set benchmarks to trigger removal of the mask mandate, indicating that there are too many variables and unknowns.
State health officials will consider hospital capacity, the availability of COVID-19 treatments which are currently in short supply and how well the vaccines hold up against the virus before deciding to lift the rule, Sidelinger said.
Hospitalizations are nearing 1,100 people, with a rise of nearly 130% since Jan. 1, Sidelinger said. State data show that intensive care beds for adults are starting to run short in eastern Oregon and in Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties. Hospitals are also running out of regular adult beds in the Portland area to the coast, northcentral Oregon, and Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.
Urban areas were hit first by omicron hospitalizations, Sidelinger said. He expects to see a rise in hospitalizations in rural areas in the days ahead.
“While cases in our urban enclaves have leveled somewhat, we’re seeing surging cases and more serious illness in less vaccinated rural areas and amongst those who are elderly,” Sidelinger said.
He emphasized when Oregonians increase mask use and limit travel and indoor gatherings, they help moderate the spread of omicron. Graven initially projected that Oregon would need more than 3,000 hospital beds for omicron cases by late January. He quickly whittled that, revising his forecasts in part on behavior changes reported through Facebook surveys.
His model showed that following Christmas, there was a steep decline in the number of Oregonians attending large indoor gatherings. There’s been a drop in people going to restaurants and bars, shopping indoors and gathering indoors as well. Mask wearing has remained about the same, the forecast showed.
Nevertheless, the daily case count has surpassed 10,000 cases in recent days, with state officials reporting yet another pandemic high on Friday of nearly 11,000 cases, about 900 more than Thursday.
Compared with delta, however, omicron is putting more children in the hospitals, with pediatric cases surging since the end of December, state data indicate.
“Right now there’s a lot more children hospitalized with COVID-19,” Sidelinger said.
That trend mirrors other states. Children younger than 5 are not eligible for vaccination, and children are especially susceptible to upper respiratory diseases. Delta attacks the lungs while omicron hits the respiratory tract.
Overall children account for about 17% of infections in Oregon while making up 20% of the population. The rate of pediatric cases per 100,000 is highest among teens aged 12 to 17.
Like its mask policy, the Oregon Health Authority plans no changes in testing. The latest test positivity rate, which does not include results from most at-home tests, was 22% the week of Jan. 9 to Jan. 15, state data show. That compares with more than 7% the week of Dec. 19 to Dec. 25 and nearly 16% from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
Oregon has purchased 6 million rapid test kits, which each has two tests, and received 1.9 million to date. It has distributed 110,000 kits to K-12 schools, nearly 800,000 to hospitals and 260,000 to local health clinics that mainly serve low-income residents. Sidelinger said the state has 500,000 kits in reserve to replenish supplies for schools and hospitals. The state expects another 600,000 kits to arrive in coming days. The state does not plan to follow Washington state’s lead and offer them to Oregonians online.
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