SALEM, Ore. — The omicron wave is here, and the next few weeks are going to be some of the most difficult that Oregon has faced through the entire pandemic. At an Oregon Health Authority press conference on Friday, state officials outlined a bleak prognosis for what's on the way.
Oregon's COVID cases are rising at an unprecedented clip, and Oregon State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger opened the press conference by announcing that OHA recorded 10,451 new cases on Thursday.
Until last week, Oregon's highest single-day new case count was 3,207 on Aug. 27, at the height of the delta variant wave. The state surpassed that number with 3,534 new cases on Dec. 30, and has broken its own record every day this week — 4,540 cases on Monday, 6,203 on Tuesday and 7,615 on Wednesday.
The situation is going to get worse before it gets better, Sidelinger said, and every Oregonian is going to be impacted either by getting infected or through secondary effects such as an oversaturated healthcare system and shuttered schools and businesses due to too many staff being out sick.
“Many people will have to miss work, and we will see disruptions in the services that we’re used to," he said.
The pandemic has reached a stage where contact tracing and case reporting are no longer effective tools to slow the spread of the disease, he said — the variant is simply too contagious. Instead, OHA will create a case support hotline for people who have COVID-19 and need assistance.
Sidelinger also stressed that all Oregonians should get vaccinated or get their booster shots as soon as possible, if they haven't done so already. Vaccines greatly reduce the risk of severe illness and death, and unvaccinated people will be at greater risk of catching COVID than ever before in the coming weeks.
"This virus will find you," Sidelinger said.
Gov. Kate Brown announced a goal in mid-December to get booster shots to 1 million Oregonians by the end of January to help fend off the omicron wave.
The state is probably going to miss that target, Sidelinger admitted on Friday; traffic at vaccine sites has lagged due to the holidays and inclement weather, he said, and only about 250,000 Oregonians have gotten boosted since the challenge began.
Hospitalization surge incoming
Dr. Peter Graven, director of the Oregon Health and Science University Office of Advanced Analytics, said the forecast for COVID hospitalizations in the omicron wave remains essentially unchanged from a week ago: a predicted peak of about 1,650 hospitalizations, likely arriving by the end of January.
That's more than 30% higher than the peak of 1,187 hospitalizations during the delta wave, which pushed hospitals nearly to the breaking point.
“We are seeing these levels in states on the East Coast and we know they’re coming to Oregon," Graven said.
The omicron variant tends to result in milder illness with fewer cases that need hospitalization, and the hospital stays tend to be shorter with less need for Intensive Care Unit treatment.
The forecast model accounts for those differences, Graven said, "but that doesn't help with the all-at-once impact on hospital capacity we’re going to see here," due to the sheer number of cases the variant is expected to cause.
In a sign of the seriousness of what's on the way, OHA issued an interim "crisis care tool" to the state's hospitals this week that will help them triage cases and prioritize treatment if they reach a point where they no longer have sufficient resources to treat every COVID patient.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday morning that she will deploy up to 500 members of the Oregon National Guard to support hospitals. The deployments will begin next week with 125 Guard members to provide logistical support and assist with COVID testing and other non-clinical work, according to a press release from Brown's office.
Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill also spoke at the press conference and discussed the expected impacts of omicron on Oregon's school system.
The state began the current school year by setting a "north star" of maintaining in-person learning every day, he said, but that goal is already facing severe obstacles, with multiple schools making temporary switches to distance learning.
That pattern is likely to continue in the coming weeks, he said, mirroring other community-wide omicron impacts such as canceled flights, postponed games and shuttered restaurants.
“None of this is related to any mandate," he said. "It’s happening because too many people are falling ill to keep operations going.”
Gill and other officials at the press conference pushed back on the idea that widespread transmission of the virus in schools is unavoidable, arguing that the structured environment of schools makes them better at enforcing and maintaining masks, social distancing and other strategies to mitigate transmission.
Many students and staff will likely be exposed to COVID, Gill said, but with the full protocols in place, the exposures won't necessarily result in infection.
But students and staff will also face exposure risks in less-structured environments outside of school, he added, so the ability of schools to stay open will also depend on Oregonians in general taking their own steps to limit transmission including getting vaccinated, wearing masks and avoiding indoor gatherings.