Governor, health experts brace Oregonians for a serious impact from Omicron by February

In a surprising development, state officials said Friday that hospitalizations for Omicron could soon end up dwarfing cases from earlier Covid variants

By: and - December 17, 2021 5:31 pm
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Gov. Kate Brown has appointed the majority of those on the Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Court of Appeals. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In the past week, the Covid-19 outlook for Oregon shifted dramatically, with the state now facing the prospect of having the highest surge yet of infections and hospitalizations.

A new forecast by Oregon Health & Science University indicates that more than 3,000 people would need to be hospitalized in Oregon by early February, surpassing the 1,200 hospitalized during Delta’s peak. 

If that develops, Oregon will not have enough hospital beds for everyone who needs one and hospitals will have to decide who to treat.

“We’re seeing all the pieces we need to say that it could be bad,” Peter Graven, director of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics, told the Capital Chronicle after a news conference Friday with Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Health Authority officials.

The dire forecast stands in contrast to general expectations that Omicron would be little worse than a bad cold while the Delta variant continued to fade.

Earlier projections expected infections in the state to continue declining, but Graven said he noticed an uptick in Covid-19 cases. He said he received new information in recent days from Kentucky, Washington state and Denmark that led him to calculate that Omicron could become the dominant strain in Oregon in two to three weeks. 

We only have a few weeks to prepare before Omicron hits our communities and our health care system and in full force.

– Gov. Kate Brown

The variant was detected in Washington state 16 days ago. It now accounts for nearly 40% of new cases there. 

“If they’re getting Omicron case rates as high as that, that’s a real sign that we can get those case rates too,” Graven said. Various data show cases double every two to three days.

That doesn’t give Oregon state agencies and the medical community, especially hospitals, much time to prepare.

“We only have a few weeks to prepare before Omicron hits our communities and our health care system in full force,” Brown said during the news conference. 

Health officials are launching a statewide campaign to increase vaccinations, and get booster shots into more people. State data show that nearly 75% of adults in Oregon have received two shots but only about 28% of adults have booster shots. People aged 16 and older can get a third dose six months after the second one.

Though scientists have preliminary data, research published by British scientists this week showed that a third shot can increase the immune defense against Omicron.

“Boosters work and are incredibly effective,” Brown said. “If you aren’t yet vaccinated, now is the time. This truly can be a matter of life or death.”

State plans several actions

The Oregon Health Authority plans a multipronged approach to try to get more shots into arms.

The goal: Get an additional 1 million Oregonians boosted by the end of January.

To do this, Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said the state will:

  • Double or triple supplies to local public health departments.
  • Add three new high-capacity vaccination sites and resume mobile clinics.
  • Add contracted health care staff and deploy them to clinics.
  • Bolster the state’s supply of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Allen said the state will focus on boosting the elderly, who face the highest risk of being hospitalized, by deploying mobile clinics to long-term care and nursing facilities over the next two weeks and working on vaccination plans with facilities. He also said the state will augment staffing at health care clinics that largely serve low-income residents.

READ IT: OHSU Omicron forecast

One of the biggest roadblocks to increased vaccination, however, has been staffing. It’s not clear whether the state can recruit enough people from out of state to staff clinics so they can increase vaccinations and to bolster hospital staff to treat an influx of new patients.

Graven didn’t expect the outlook on hospitals to be so dire. But in recent days he received new data from Denmark. It’s a good country to compare Oregon to because it has a similar demographics profile, he said. Even more people are vaccinated there.

Though initial reports from South African indicated that Omicron doesn’t cause as severe illness as Delta, the numbers of people with Omicron in Denmark who need a hospital bed is rising, Graven said.

We’re seeing all the pieces we need to say that it could be bad.

– Peter Graven, director of Oregon Health & Science University's Office of Advanced Analytics

That was the piece that I needed to say I can project something now and see what that means for Oregon,” Graven said. Omicron is “clearly finding people to hospitalize, which nobody wants to believe.” 

He said his forecast is likely to trigger others across the country with similar outlooks.

“This will not seem shocking by the end of next week,” Graven said.

At a White House press briefing Friday, the president’s Covid coordinator also warned the country to expect a surge of infections.

“Our message to every American is clear: There is action you can take to protect yourself and your family,” said Jeff Zients, the coordinator.  “Wear a mask in public indoor settings.  Get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, and get a booster shot when you’re eligible.”

He said the Biden administration is intent on seeing that the variant doesn’t disrupt business or schools.

“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” he said.

In Oregon, the health authority will send crisis-of-care guidelines to hospitals by mid-January, Allen said. Those are used by health care professionals to determine who gets a bed and who’s sent home. Idaho resorted to such guidelines earlier this year when its hospitals were overwhelmed.

During the Delta peak, some Oregon hospitals ran out of beds for a day or two at a time. Hospitals in central and southern Oregon were the most strained.

Graven said it’s likely that there will be less demand for intensive care or ventilators. But even a two- to three-day hospital stay instead of a week or two will be too much.

Oregon has fewer hospital beds per capita than almost all other states, aside from Washington.

“We’re going to have to do stuff that other states might not have to do,” Graven said. “We just don’t have the beds in Oregon.”

Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of OHSU, said the forecast came as a “gut punch” for already weary health care workers.

“I’m sure everyone hearing this news is devastated,” Edwards said during the news conference.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health System said in a statement that the forecast was a “stark reminder” of the need for people to protect themselves.

Hospital staffing and capacity are overwhelmed from the Delta surge, seasonal influenza and patients needing urgent, delayed care. Now, more than ever, is the time to do all we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors from Covid.”

The Oregon Nurses Association added its voice to the pleas for Oregonians to take precautions now.

“For nurses, and for all health care workers in Oregon, this is a particularly crucial time: the state continues to face unprecedented staffing challenges in hospitals and clinical settings in every community,” the association said in a statement.

It urged people to consider returning to virtual gatherings.

“Everyone is exhausted by the ongoing impact of Covid 19, and Oregon’s nurses understand the frustration of having to be separated from our families and loved ones during the holidays,” the association said. “However, given the upcoming surge, please consider holding virtual gatherings, limiting the number of people who gather and ensuring high-risk individuals are protected from potential exposure.”

No new restrictions planned

Brown said that for the moment she has no plans to enact new Covid-19 restrictions, such as requiring masks outdoors, imposing limits on crowds in concert venues or even closing businesses. But Brown didn’t rule anything out.

“Everything’s on the table,” Brown said.

State employees who have been working remotely will continue to do so, however. They were supposed to return to the office in early January.Brown didn’t say when they might be return. 

It’s not clear how the next surge will affect the Legislature. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Salem on Feb. 1 for a short session.

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney called the forecast “concerning” in a statement to the Capital Chronicle. “It is too early to tell what impact the Omicron variant will have on the February session,” they said. “We continue to consult infectious disease doctors and public health experts to keep Oregonians safe while ensuring strong public participation in the legislative process.” 

We are seeing a dramatically lower death rate. That part is good.

– Peter Graven, director of Oregon Health & Science University's Office of Advanced Analytics

Brown said she will meet with business leaders over the weekend to discuss steps they can take to keep their employees and customers safe. 

“Folks should be aware this is going to impact how businesses operate because this variant spreads so easily,” Brown said. 

Oregonians are likely to see disruptions in businesses because of workers getting sick, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, added during the news conference. Over the past few days, multiple Broadway shows have canceled performances after the cast or crew tested positive for Covid, and Sidelinger said that will likely extend to other businesses. 

So far, additional statewide restrictions like the business closures imposed in the early days of the pandemic aren’t likely, Brown said. 

In spring 2020, federal programs including the Paycheck Protection Program and increased unemployment benefits provided cash to keep businesses and workers afloat. Covid vaccines also hadn’t been developed. 

Now, the focus should be on vaccinations instead of closures, she said. 

Brown said she was also committed to keeping schools open – as long as it’s safe. Students will be on winter break until after the first of the year.

The state requires all school employees to be vaccinated, and students and teachers alike must wear masks in school. That makes the classroom one of the safest places for children, Brown said. 

The only nugget of good news that emerged during the press conference had to do with fatalities. Graven doesn’t expect a surge.

“We are seeing a dramatically lower death rate,” Graven said. “That part is good.”

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Lynne Terry
Lynne Terry

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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