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Coronavirus Watch

Omicron expected to overwhelm Oregon hospitals despite lower severity

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon's hospitals are expected to be overwhelmed by the end of this month even though the highly contagious Omicron variant tends to be less severe, said OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics director Dr. Peter Graven in a press briefing alongside state health and education officials on Friday.

With COVID-19 cases in the state skyrocketing this week, Dr. Graven said that his latest modeling shows a steep incline in hospitalized patients ahead, reaching an estimated 1,652 COVID-19 patients by the end of January — 30% higher than during the Delta variant peak.

Omicron infections do tend to be less severe, Graven said, and hospital stays tend to be shorter. Nonetheless, Omicron's sheer transmissibility means that a high number of more vulnerable people will require this level of care.

"That doesn't help with the kind of all-at-once impact on hospital capacity that we're going to see here, and hopefully prevent," Graven said. "My model does account for the fact that the average length of stay in a hospital tends to be shorter, with less need for care in our intensive care units, less ventilators, and hopefully less deaths as well. Unfortunately, data from the East Coast shows that the sheer number of infections will lead to a corresponding increase in all types of care, including ICUs."

Vaccinations continue to be effective in preventing severe illness, but Graven acknowledged that Omicron is spreading rapidly among vaccinated people as well as the unvaccinated.

Oregon reported 10,451 new cases on Friday, breaking a single-day pandemic record for the fourth time this week, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger.

Despite COVID-19 transmission raging this week, with the 7-day average of new cases increasing 373% over the week prior, Dr. Sidelinger said that Oregon will embrace the CDC-recommended shortening of quarantine periods from 10 days to 5 after someone tests positive for COVID-19 for people without symptoms.

"This new guidance will shorten the period of time that people are asked to stay home, with minimal increased risk in spreading the virus," Sidelinger said. "Anyone who has been exposed to the virus is urged to get tested five days afterward. People showing symptoms should limit contact with others until a negative test confirms no infection."

The reason for this may have been best illuminated by Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill, who underlined that schools continue to treat in-person learning as their lodestar. Some schools have been forced to go on temporary remote learning, primarily attributed to staffing shortages caused by cases among students and staff combined with the required quarantine periods. The shortened isolation times mean that students and staff will be back in the classroom sooner.

Gill stressed that the best way to preserve in-person learning is for the community to pitch in — getting vaccinated and wearing masks when mingling with people outside of the household.