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Dec. 31 forecast: Omicron wave of infections begins now

Extremely contagious virus variant will severely strain Oregon hospital capacity
OHSU COVID-19 forecast Dec. 31 2021. The exterior of OHSU's emergency department building.
The updated forecast incorporates data showing that infections in Europe and the East Coast are spreading more quickly and will also likely spread rapidly in Oregon. This could strain Oregon hospitals. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

A wave of hospitalizations will begin accelerating now in Oregon with a peak coming by the end of January, according to an updated COVID-19 forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.

Even though the omicron variant appears to cause a lower overall rate of severe illness than the previously dominant delta variant, its rapid spread combined with its ability to elude previous immunity will drive an unprecedented number of infections and a corresponding increase in hospitalizations.

The wave of infections will place severe strain on hospital capacity.

Peter Graven, Ph.D. (OHSU) A man with light hair smiling.
Peter Graven, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“People should take extreme caution, especially if they’re going to be around people at higher risk including older adults and those who are immunocompromised,” said Peter Graven, Ph.D., director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics. “I expect hospitalizations will start accelerating now and peak by the end of January.”

Graven projects that the surge of infections will accelerate earlier, based on the rapid spread of the virus and accompanying hospitalizations on the East Coast of the United States. The updated forecast also draws on new data from Europe indicating a higher rate of vaccinated people are becoming infected.

The new forecast projects Oregon hospitalizations peaking at about 1,650 people by the end of January – higher than the 1,250 people he projected in his last forecast, on Dec. 23. A month from now, Graven expects the virus will find fewer people who have not already been recently infected or vaccinated and hospitalizations will fall rapidly as they have in South Africa.

Oregon is increasing the number of people currently getting booster shots; however, the updated forecast incorporates data showing that infections in Europe and the East Coast are spreading more quickly and will also likely spread rapidly in Oregon.

“Now is not the time to be resigned to getting COVID,” Graven said. “It will be especially important to protect those most vulnerable to severe illness over the next few weeks.

“If people wear facial coverings and avoid indoor gatherings, it could help to flatten the curve. That will help to ensure all Oregonians continue to have access to hospital care when they need it, whether it’s for COVID-19 or all of the other life-threatening conditions that demand care in a hospital.”

Oregon hospitalizations peaked at 1,187 on Sept. 1 during the surge of infections from the delta variant.

Hospitalizations are already rising in Oregon, after falling as low as 339 just a week ago. As of Thursday, Dec. 30, a total of 440 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon, according to the latest figures from the Oregon Health Authority.

Portland-area health care leaders are calling on Oregonians to:

  • Get vaccinated or boosted if they haven’t already, and go to https://getvaccinated.oregon.gov/#/ for more information.
  • Wear a mask indoor public settings.
  • Avoid large gatherings.

In addition, OHSU is providing resources for those seeking a test and vaccine. Those who experience symptoms, or test positive, should first call their health care provider before seeking care in a hospital emergency room. OHSU has also established a toll-free hotline for people anywhere in the state to seek guidance about symptoms and care for COVID-19. Oregonians can call 833-OHSU-CCC (833-647-8222) seven days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

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