Omicron Variant Spreading Faster than Expected, State Hospital Officials Say

Oregon is headed into the new year with the more contagious Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreading faster than expected, setting the stage for record hospitalizations through January, according to the latest forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.

The forecast by Dr. Peter Graven, director of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics, reversed course from a more hopeful report issued just last week.

He now projects the Omicron variant will make about 1,650 Oregonians so sick they will need hospital treatment.

That total dwarfs the peak Oregon saw in September, with 1,187 people hospitalized. And that put such a strain on hospitals they recruited out-of-state nurses and turned to the Oregon National Guard for help.

The Oregon Health Authority reported that hospitalizations from the coronavirus have ticked up again, with 445 people hospitalized as of Friday for Covid, increasing by 36 in just two days.

The total number of beds available Friday for all adult care in Oregon hospitals stood at 297.

In an interview, Graven noted the state has about 4,700 hospital beds and nearly all are already full. But the forecast indicates hundreds of new Covid patients are likely to require hospitalization in a surge that crests in late January.

“We don’t have room,” said Graven.

Vaccination remains essential, he said. Hospitals in the East are reporting three unvaccinated people hospitalized for every vaccinated person admitted. About 65% of Oregonians have completed their original vaccination series.

Governor Kate Brown in mid-December warned the state of the coming surge. She imposed no new restrictions but instead set an ambitious goal to get 1 million more Oregonians boosted with a third shot by the end of January.

Graven’s forecast said research in Denmark showed that the booster was only about 50% effective at preventing an Omicron infection. However, he said, it has proven valuable in keeping people from getting so sick they are hospitalized or even die.

In his forecast, Graven noted that Oregon has been averaging about 12,000 booster shots a day. At that rate, the state wouldn’t hit the governor’s goal for another two months – long after the wave of Omicron has come and gone under the latest forecast.

As of Friday, about one in three Oregonians has been boosted.

In a statement, Graven urged close attention to the forecast.

“Even though the Omicron variant appears to cause a lower overall rate of severe illness than the previously dominant delta variant, its rapid spread combined with its ability to elude previous immunity will drive an unprecedented number of infections and a corresponding increase in hospitalizations,” Graven said in his statement.

The latest estimate of hospitalizations moves closer to the alarming forecast that prompted the governor to put the state on alert. That forecast projected 2,000 hospitalizations.

The new forecast accounts for the more rapid spread and the Denmark research documenting that the Omicron infection rate is the same for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

The crucial difference, Graven emphasized, is the health impact, with those with vaccinations enduring less severe conditions.

He said Oregonians should still follow covid protocols, such as masking up.

“There’s no reason to be indoors without a mask around someone who is high risk, such as elderly or immunocompromised,” Graven said. “There may not be a hospital bed for them when they need it.”

The new forecast comes just before the holidays end, schools resume and the work force thinned by holiday vacations beefs up again.

What’s ahead for Oregon may be what’s been seen in other parts of the country, where Omicron struck earlier. Hospital leaders in other states have resumed pleading with people to take steps to stop the spread as they face overwhelming caseloads and illness among their own workers.

The nation’s travel industry has been disrupted by cancellations of commercial flights in part because crews have been depleted by illness.

Brown’s office was closed Friday for the holiday and there was no fresh word on what strategy the governor will employ next as the state faces its third life-disrupting bout of the coronavirus.

The Oregon Health Authority is getting ready to deliver 6 million at-home test kits. Health officials hope that people testing positive will follow quarantining practices to arrest the spread.

The agency also announced before the Christmas holiday that four more “high-volume clinics” to provide vaccinations and boosters were opening around state, joining six others already in operation.

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Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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