The emergence of the new omicron variant could alter the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for now, the latest updated forecast from Oregon Health & Science University projects the number of Oregonians hospitalized with COVID-19 continuing its slow descent.
“We need to look to the science and realize that people around the world are actively trying to figure out omicron,” said Peter Graven, Ph.D., director of OHSU’s Office of Advanced Analytics.
Right now, it’s unclear whether the new variant is more transmissible or evades the immune response generated by vaccination or recent infections by the delta variant now widely circulating in Oregon and across the world.
OHSU will model the potential spread of omicron as scientists learn more about it, Graven said.
“We have adapted the model to handle omicron as soon as we know the parameters, which we expect to be available in the next week or two,” he said. “In the meantime, we don’t think it’s a big threat in Oregon because we don’t yet have a confirmed case and it will take time for it to spread.”
In contrast to the early days of the pandemic, Graven said that scientists and policymakers have a robust testing and genetic surveillance system to monitor the spread of new variants and experience to act quickly to protect vulnerable people such as those in assisted living centers.
In addition, vaccines are readily available and have proved effective against an onslaught of other variants for the past 12 months.
The latest OHSU forecast is almost identical to last week’s version, projecting that hospitalizations will fall below 200 around the first of February 2022. Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, Oregon hospitalizations hit a pandemic peak of 1,187 hospitalized on Sept. 1, 2021.
The new forecast estimates 82% of Oregonians are now immune, meaning they have been vaccinated or recently infected. That’s getting close to the point – Graven estimates around 85% – when it will become much more difficult for the delta variant to spread readily across Oregon’s still-unprotected population.
The omicron variant could change that calculation, Graven said.
“It really comes down to vaccination,” he said. “If the vaccines work, we’re fine. If they don’t work at preventing hospitalizations, we may have to go back to protecting our vulnerable populations until we get a booster that effectively neutralizes the omicron variant.”
A total of 384 people are hospitalized as of Thursday, Dec. 2, according to the latest figures compiled by the Oregon Health Authority.