The surge of people hospitalized or infected with the more contagious but less severe Omicron variant is over, according to the latest forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.
The forecast, which influences the policy of the Oregon Health Authority, indicates that Oregon reached its peak is now on a downtrend, and the number of Oregonians infected or hospitalized has started to decline. The downward slide is expected to continue to mid-June when the state could reach pre-pandemic levels, provided another variant doesn’t emerge, the forecast shows.
In the meantime, Oregonians need to keep their masks on in public places at least until the state mandate is lifted on or before March 31, said Peter Graven, director of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics, who prepared the forecast.
“It’s important for people to stick with masking through the next several weeks,” Graven said in a statement. “Even though our forecast projects light at the end of a very long tunnel, we can’t lose sight of the fact that hospitals in Oregon are still struggling to deliver timely care for everyone who needs it.”
The Oregon Health Authority said on Monday that it would lift the state indoor mask mandate by the end of March, or possibly before, depending on hospitalizations. It said it would retain the mask requirement in schools until then to give administrators and educators time to ensure that children can be kept safe.
If the health authority were to lift its mask mandate now, hospitalizations would surge anew, Graven predicted. On January 27, a peak of 1,130 people were hospitalized with Omicron. That compares with 1,178 on September 1, the most since the pandemic landed in March 2020.
On Thursday, 1,007 people were hospitalized with Covid statewide. Hospitalizations in Coos, Curry, Douglas and Lane counties continue to rise, while those in the Portland area to the coast are declining slowly. Hospitalizations remain flat elsewhere in the state.
Oregon’s hospitalization rate at the peak was more than one-third lower than the average for the U.S., Graven said.
“Oregonians’ commitment to protecting themselves, their neighbors and their community is paying off,” Graven said. “It will be important to maintain that vigilance in the weeks ahead.”
Another sign that the pandemic might be waning: The rate of positive tests is declining. Last week, 18% of tests were positive for the virus compared with 22% the week of January 9.
Graven and other health care officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated and boosted to ensure they’re protected against the virus and other variants. A total of 83% of adults in Oregon have received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines and one dose of the Johnson & Johnson. Nearly 43% are boosted.
“We also know that the virus continues to mutate and spread, as we saw with delta and Omicron,” Graven said. “That’s why it’s critical for people to get vaccinated and boosted so that we’re able to handle future mutations while maintaining timely access to medical care that all Oregonians expect and deserve.”
As the state prepares to weather the next stage in the coronavirus pandemic, OHA announced it has stockpiled 2 million Covid-19 rapid test kits at its warehouse in Wilsonville, but does not know when they’ll be sent out. It is waiting for requests for the tests, according to Jonathan Modie, a spokesman with the health authority.
The health authority ordered 6 million test kits from iHealth Labs Inc. on December 28 at a cost of $60 million, which will be reimbursed by the federal government. The agency said then that they’d be delivered over the next five weeks.
“We’re continuing to receive weekly shipments from the manufacturer and are scheduled to receive our full 6 million tests by mid-February,” Tim Heider, an Oregon Health Authority spokesman, said in an email. “The manufacturer is about a week behind our initial delivery schedule due to airline crew delays, but they are working in good faith to fulfill our full order as soon as possible.”
The health authority has distributed 1.3 million test kits to hospitals, schools, county health departments, tribal communities, organizations that work with homeless people, groups that work with farmworkers and clinics that serve low-income patients.
Besides schools and hospitals, the agency is reserving the tests for organizations that serve racial and ethnic minorities and other individuals who have been the hardest hit by the pandemic.
State data show the tests have been distributed statewide, with about a third of a million going to Portland Public Schools and Oregon Health & Science University and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in southwest Portland.
The kits contain two tests, which determine within minutes whether a person is infected with Omicron or another variant of the virus. They’re not as accurate as PCR tests, which require a lab to process, but they can be done at home and are considered to be fairly reliable in picking up an infection after the first day or two, when the virus is starting to multiply.
The news comes the same week Clackamas County officials announced eligible organizations can now order iHealth Covid-19 at-home test kits from the county. The county has 12,000 tests to distribute to community partners.
“We continue to tackle the many health barriers and inequities during this pandemic,” said Clackamas County Public Health Director Philip Mason-Joyner. “These test kits will help reduce those barriers for some of the most vulnerable members of Clackamas County who cannot otherwise access tests.”
The tests produce results in 15 minutes. The test is painless and requires a shallow swabbing of the nostrils.
Organizations eligible to receive home test kits include adult foster and group homes, behavioral and mental health service providers, family childcare programs, community corrections, residential drug treatment programs, senior centers and warming shelter operators.
“We appreciate all the hard work our partners do to promote and protect the health of the community,” said Mason-Joyner. “These tests are a long-awaited resource we are excited to distribute.”
Eligible organizations may request tests at this link or by calling 503-655-8224.
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence.
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