Following three confirmed cases of the highly-contagious omicron variant in Oregon, health officials warn the state’s peak number of hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic — about 1,200 —could more than double by the end of February.
“Today’s forecast is a warning we can’t ignore. Like a tsunami alert, the OHSU forecast is telling us that a big wave is coming,” said Patrick Allen, the director of the state health authority. “And it threatens to be bigger than any wave we’ve seen before.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and health officials on Friday urged people to get their COVID-19 booster shot.
The health authority announced it is working to expand booster vaccination — with a goal of administering booster shots to an additional million residents, doubling the current number people who have already received the booster.
Allen said early indications show the omicron variant is more resistant to vaccines, but people who are vaccinated are less likely to get seriously ill.
“Preliminary research tells us that a booster dose further builds antibodies,” he said.
Dr. Peter Graven, director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics, said the state has about two or three weeks before omicron becomes the dominant strain of the virus in Oregon.
“We expect that cases will ramp up quickly,” he said earlier this week.
He said modeling predicts hospitalizations to peak around 3,000 from omicron compared to 1,200 for delta.
St. Charles officials say they are preparing for a surge.
“If the predictive models are right, we can expect to see yet another—and likely worse—surge of hospitalized patients by mid-January,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles Health System’s chief physician executive. “While we got very encouraging news today that the state is going to extend its staffing contract with nurse travelers, we’re urgently imploring people to get vaccinated, and if they’re eligible, to get boosted. It is the single most important step we can take to mitigate the impact of the wave we know is coming.”
Following the news conference, the state’s hospitals association issued a statement calling the forecast “alarming” and a “stark reminder of the need to protect ourselves and our communities.”
“Hospital staffing and capacity are overwhelmed from the delta surge, seasonal influenza, and patients needing urgent, delayed care,” said Becky Hultberg, President and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health System. “Now, more than ever, is the time to do all we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors from COVID. The single best thing you can do is to get vaccinated and receive your booster shot if you haven’t already.
“Please continue to wear a mask, physically distance, avoid large gatherings, and wash your hands regularly. It is not too late to protect yourself. The time to act is now. Our hospitals, our workforce, and our communities need your help so we can care for those who need us the most.”
The Oregon Nurses Association echoed those sentiments and called on Oregonians to do their part.
“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,” according to a statement from the union, “The Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) is calling upon Oregonians to take all possible steps to protect their health in the face of this threat. By doing so, we can help mitigate the devastating impacts on our health care systems, and our dedicated nurses, from an Omicron surge.”
Although officials warn of a fifth wave, Brown did not announce any added statewide coronavirus-related restrictions.
As for if any restrictions will return officials say “nothing is off the table.”
“We’re still really early on in what we know about omicron and I think three weeks from now, we may have a completely different picture — maybe worse, but it also could be better,” Allen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.