The number of Oregonians hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and influenza has reached its peak and will continue to decline, according to a new statewide forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.
However, the latest forecast projects a new wave of infections in Oregon caused by the highly contagious XBB.1.5 variant that causes COVID-19 and is currently sweeping the northeastern United States. Relatively few of these new cases are expected to be severe enough to generate a big wave of hospitalizations.
Oregon hospitals remain full or almost full due to a large influx of patients in need of all kinds of medical care, not just respiratory illness.
“There’s a big backlog of people in need of hospital care statewide,” said Peter Graven, Ph.D., director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics. “Hospitals are short-staffed and it’s hard to get through that backlog. Even without a big new surge of respiratory illnesses, it’s still going to feel pretty tight in hospitals around the state.”
The new OHSU forecast shows flu and RSV continuing to recede in the weeks ahead, although that will be partly offset by an expected increase in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. The forecast anticipates 367 people will be hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon as of Feb. 4, up from 342 as of the latest figures from the Oregon Health Authority on Jan. 4.
It will be important for people to continue to take precautions in the weeks ahead, especially when they experience symptoms of illness.
In September, Graven warned about the possibility of a large surge in respiratory illnesses other than COVID-19 — partly due to the fact that masking and other public health measures had reduced exposure to respiratory viruses since March 2020. When large numbers of people gathered indoors this fall, the masks fell away and respiratory illness quickly spread.
The resulting surge in RSV, especially among young children, combined with influenza and COVID-19 to severely strain hospital capacity, prompting hospitals to implement staffing crisis standards of care.
Respiratory illness in the years ahead
Next year’s flu and RSV season is expected to be less severe, given the high rate of exposure across the population this year, said Bill Messer, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, and medicine (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine.
“One of the things the pandemic has shown us is that asymptomatic or subclinical exposure plays an important role in maintaining population-level immunity,” Messer said. “We saw it in how people got really sick this fall and winter, and it happened all at once. I don’t see that repeating itself again.”
At the same time, Messer cautioned that COVID-19 will remain an enduring public health threat.
“People can still get deathly ill and die from COVID,” he said. “It’s understandable that people want to relax precautions, but we should not lose track of the fact that this is a dangerous virus, particularly in vulnerable people, and probably always will be.”
Take precautions now
Health experts and hospital leaders continue to ask the public to take proven precautions to prevent the spread of respiratory illness — especially with hospitals strained to the max:
- Wear masks in public places.
- Avoid contact with those who are sick.
- Wash hands frequently.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces.
- Stay up to date on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters.
- Limit the exposure of infants and the elderly to frequent visitors and crowds, especially if they are at risk for severe illness.