St Charles covid

Nurses in the St. Charles Bend intensive care unit treat a COVID-19 patient May 27, 2021.

(UPDATED 12/17/21 1pm with Gov. Brown's briefing)

The new omicron variant of COVID-19 will sweep into Oregon over the next two to four weeks, setting new records for infections and filling hospitals beyond capacity.

"We're in a race against the clock," Gov. Kate Brown said during a Friday afternoon press call

The sixth wave of new infections comes as Oregon was slowly recovering from the delta surge that began last July and peaked in early September.

A forecast released by the Oregon Health & Science University said the new variant will push out the current dominant delta virus by the last week of December.

Peter Graven, Ph.D., the lead author of the OHSU forecast said omicron doubles at twice the rate of the current delta variant, doubling the number of infections every two days.

“We have about two to three weeks before we’ll see omicron accelerate and become the dominant strain," said Graven said. “We expect that cases will ramp up quickly.”

The OHSU report said early studies in Europe show current vaccines and earlier exposure to the virus are less effective at withstanding the omicron variant than early versions of COVID-19.

The Pfizer and Moderna two-shot vaccination loses about 50% of its protective power with omicron. The third booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, now authorized for anyone over age 16, offered significant additional protection.

The booster is especially needed for those most vulnerable to severe illness, including immunocompromised residents or older adults living in congregant settings.

"I'm calling on one million oregonians to step up and get a booster shot," Brown said at the press conference.

While early scientific evidence indicates omicron causes fewer cases of severe infection, the shear number of additional infections will create so many cases that it will exceed hospitalizations of earlier waves of the virus.

Hospitalizations could top 2,000 per day, swamping the state health care system at a time when other states are dealing with the same crisis and will be unable to lend assistance to Oregon. Hospitalizations rose to nearly 1,200 per day during peak of the delta spike, and have slowly fallen to about 400 per day.

Graven said the numer of infections will be somewhat mitigated by the expection of lower severity of each case. Hospital stays will be shorter and each case is less likely to require an intensive care unit bed or ventilator.

"The good news is I am not expecting a lot of deaths from this variant," Graven said.

Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of OHSU, said the ablity of omicron to infect vaccinated people means that doctors, nurses and others who care for the sick can get sick themselves, further depleting the ranks of available staff.

"We're only halfway down" the peak of the delta surge that began last summer, she said.

Brown said that the state would move to field at least three more major vaccination centers and to rush new anti-viral medicines to hospitals in preparation for the surge. The state is attempting to contract for more out-of-state medical personnel and is working with the Biden Administration on federal help. 

No additional restrictions or mask mandates are in the mix for now, Brown said, but "all tools are on the table." She said with the availability of vaccines, masks and medicines, the situation this year is different from last year. 

Brown said she was taking the step of immediately freezing plans to bring state workers back into offices on Jan. 1. 

COVID-19 infections have been on the rise again even before omicron cases were first reported on Monday. 

The delta variant has been showing increased presence in Oregon, as well as the rest of the nation, as cold weather keeping people indoors, and larger holiday gatherings have made it easier for the virus to spread.

OHA’s weekly report on COVID-19 cases found that unvaccinated people accounted for just under 70% of new infections. Vaccinated people accounted for just over 30%. 

The average age of the breakthrough cases during that period was 44.

As of Wednesday, Oregon has reported 49,250 COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough cases, with all 36 counties having reported the infections of vaccinated people. . 

The biggest difference is in severity of illness. Only 4.4% of all vaccine breakthrough cases have required hospitalization, and 1.3% have died. The average age of vaccinated people who died was 81.

The new omicron variant of COVID-19 will sweep into Oregon over the next two to four weeks, setting new records for infections and filling hospitals beyond capacity.

"We're in a race against the clock," Gov. Kate Brown said during a Friday afternoon press call

The sixth wave of new infections comes as Oregon was slowly recovering from the delta surge that began last July and peaked in early September.

A forecast released by the Oregon Health & Science University said the new variant will push out the current dominant delta virus by the last week of December.

Peter Graven, Ph.D., the lead author of the OHSU forecast said omicron doubles at twice the rate of the current delta variant, doubling the number of infections every two days.

“We have about two to three weeks before we’ll see omicron accelerate and become the dominant strain," said Graven said. “We expect that cases will ramp up quickly.”

The OHSU report said early studies in Europe show current vaccines and earlier exposure to the virus are not as effective against omicron as earlier variations of COVID-19.

The Pfizer and Moderna two-shot vaccination loses about 50% of its protective power with omicron. The third booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, now authorized for anyone over age 16, offered significant additional protection.

The booster is especially needed for those most vulnerable to severe illness, including immunocompromised residents or older adults living in congregant settings.

"I'm calling on one million oregonians to step up and get a booster shot," Brown said at the press conference.

While there is early evidence that omicron causes fewer cases of severe infection, the shear number of additional infections will create so many cases that it will exceed earlier waves of the virus.

Hospitalizations could top 2,000 per day, swamping the state health care system at a time when other states are dealing with the same crisis and will be unable to lend assistance to Oregon.

Graven said the numer of infections will be somewhat mitigated by the expection of lower severity of each case. Hospital stays will be shorter and each case is less likely to require an intensive care unit bed or ventilator.

"The good news is I am not expecting a lot of deaths from this variant," Graven said.

Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of OHSU, said the ablity of omicron to infect vaccinated people means that doctors, nurses and others who care for the sick can get sick themselves, further depleting the ranks of available staff.

"We're only halfway down" the peak of the delta surge that began last summer, she said.

Brown said that the state would move to field at least three more major vaccination centers and to rush new anti-viral medicines to hospitals in preparation for the surge. The state is attempting to contract for more out-of-state medical personnel and is working with the Biden Administration on federal help. 

No additional restrictions or mask mandates are in the mix for now, Brown said, but "all tools are on the table." She said with the availability of vaccines, masks and medicines, the situation this year is different from last year. 

Brown said she was taking the step of immediately freezing plans to bring state workers back into offices on Jan. 1. 

COVID-19 infections have been on the rise again even before omicron cases were first reported on Monday. 

The delta variant has been showing increased presence in Oregon, as well as the rest of the nation, as cold weather keeping people indoors, and larger holiday gatherings have made it easier for the virus to spread.

OHA’s weekly report on COVID-19 cases found that unvaccinated people accounted for just under 70% of new infections. Vaccinated people accounted for just over 30%. 

The average age of the breakthrough cases during that period was 44.

As of Wednesday, Oregon has reported 49,250 COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough cases, with all 36 counties having reported the infections of vaccinated people. . 

The biggest difference is in severity of illness. Only 4.4% of all vaccine breakthrough cases have required hospitalization, and 1.3% have died. The average age of vaccinated people who died was 81.

Prior story:

The omicron variant of COVID-19 likely makes up just under 3% of all new COVID-19 cases in the state, the Oregon Health Authority said Thursday.

Three cases of the highly contagious variant were confirmed for the first time in Oregon on Monday.

In its Thursday daily report, OHA said the Centers for Disease Control put the percentage of new COVID-19 cases with the omicron variant at 2.9% nationwide as of Tuesday.

"OHA believes our true omicron estimate to be similar to the national figure," The agency's COVID-19 dashboard noted on Thursday.

The delta variant remains by far the dominant version of COVID-19 in the nation and in Oregon.

The state reported 909 new confirmed cases on Thursday. Using the estimate suggested by OHA, about 26 of the new infections would be of the omicron variant.

The weekly report won't be officially updated again until next Tuesday.

Oregon Health & Science University's laboratory detected the variant Monday in samples from two residents of Washington County and one from Multnomah County.

All were in their 20s and 30s and fully vaccinated. Two had traveled internationally, to Canada and Mexico, prior the onset of symptoms.

“We recognize this news is concerning to many people," said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, OHA's top epidemiologist, in a statement.

While watching for further developments, Sidelinger said the best action for now is to be vaccinated, including the third booster shot authorized for everyone age 16 and over.

"If history is our guide, we do know that even if a vaccine doesn’t target a specific variant, the strong immune response you get from being fully vaccinated can still be highly protective against severe disease from all COVID-19 variants," Sidelinger said.

The report came as the United States surpassed 50 million total cases on Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

The death toll in the United States is expected to pass 800,000 later this week.

Worldwide, there have been 5.3 million people killed by the virus, the center said.

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary since the first COVID-19 vaccines were made publicly available in the United States.

New Years Eve will mark the two-year anniversary of the appearance of the COVID-19 virus in China at the end of 2019. 

Omicron making inroads

The new omicron variant was discovered Nov. 11 in southern Africa. In just over a month, it has spread to 70 countries.

The delta variant has so far crowded out other variants since summer, when it swept across the United States. In Oregon, it sent cases soaring in early July, peaking in early September.

As recently as this week, OHA reported that 100% of recent cases in Oregon were linked to the delta variant.

Researchers at the University of Washington reported late Monday that the omicron variant was supplanting delta in an increasing number of cases in that state. A sample of positive tests from Dec. 8 showed 13% were of the omicron variant, up from 7% on Dec. 7 and 3% on Dec. 6.

Scientists around the world have come to no consensus yet on how contagious and virulent the new variant will be. Early studies indicate it is twice as contagious but of similar or lesser virulence.

The United Kingdom announced its first omicron-related death on Monday.

Delta variant driving national spike in new infections

Monday's news of the three cases in Oregon came as the state was already bracing for a possible sixth wave of delta-driven infections spreading rapidly across the country.

Nationwide, new infections are up 49% compared to two weeks ago. Oregon is now among the 45 states to report a rise in cases compared to 14 days ago.

Oregon has seen an 18% jump in new cases compared to Nov. 29.

The discovery of the omicron variant in Oregon was not included in the initial daily OHA report on Monday.

The agency tallied a three-day total of 1,387 new COVID-19 cases and 39 new deaths. The report covered Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The discovery of the omicron cases in Oregon was announced in a statement released after 6 p.m.

The current national spike is being driven by the delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control on Monday.

Public health officials say winter cold and gatherings indoors are likely to blame for high case numbers, with New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maine, Michigan, and Massachusetts reported 70 or more cases per 100,000 people on Monday. Minnesota reported 69.

Oregon was among 12 states that did not report an increase in hospitalizations compared to two weeks ago. 

But the rise in cases is spreading beyond the original outbreaks in the northeast and upper Midwest. The New York Times Covid-19 tracking websites showed increases in the past two weeks included a 80% rise in Texas, 72% in Florida, 60% in Hawaii and 53% in California.

Forecasting frustrated by unknown omicron impact

The Oregon Health & Science University’s weekly forecast, last released Friday, had features some good news, but future concerns for the path of COVID-19 in the state.

“Case rates returned to pre-Thanksgiving levels, suggesting that Thanksgiving itself did not create a wave of infections,” the report said.

Monday’s OHA report showed 408 COVID-19 patients in Oregon hospitals, down two from Sunday. Hospitals had 106 intensive care unit beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, the same as Sunday.

 OHSU forecasts early last month projected hospitalizations to fall under 200 COVID-19 patients per day by Feb. 1. That’s a key benchmark on the state’s rebound from the COVID-19 spike that began in July and peaked at just under 1,200 COVID-19 patients in hospitals each day at the beginning of September.

The current forecast delays reaching the 200-patient mark to Feb. 26. Hospitalizations aren’t expected to reach pre-July levels until the end of March.

But forecasting the future path of COVID-19 in Oregon could be upended by the omicron variant. 

“Oregon should expect a wave of omicron infections in coming months,” the report said. “The variant appears to spread much more easily than previous forms of the coronavirus.”

Public health officials need to prepare for a worst case scenario, particularly the availability of hospital beds and intensive care unit spots, researchers warned.

“If the disease is severe, the impacts are enormous,” the report said. “But there are signals it may be more mild.”

Booster shots are now approved for everyone over age 16 and many health officials believe being “fully vaccinated” now means having received the third shot of Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or second shot for those who originally were inoculated with the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine.

OHSU said the ability of omicron to get through current vaccines is showing mixed evidence.

“Booster shots appear helpful, but the vaccinated population is also at risk of infection,” the report said.

A new OHSU forecast is due Thursday evening.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a major COVID-19 forecaster used by federal and state agencies, is projecting the United States will most likely have 880,678 reported COVID-19 deaths by March 1, 2022. It projects Oregon will most likely have 6,434 deaths at that point.

The nonprofit Covid Act Now that has monitored infection and vaccination rates throughout the pandemic, rates Oregon as “High” for risk, the mid-point of its five tiered scale.

Jefferson, Yamhill, Umatilla, Malheur and Marion counties are rated as having high vulnerability, which takes into account vaccination and natural exposure rates.

Deschutes County is the only large county rated “very low” for vulnerability.

COVID-19 precautions flattening flu

While concerned about “fatigue” over COVID-19 safeguards, such as wearing masks indoors in public settings and continued social distancing, there is a key indicator that safeguards are working.

Similar to last year, OHSU reported dramatically lower incidence of flu compared to 2019.

Fourteen cases were reported so far this year, compared with 304 in a similar week two years ago. The OHSU researchers believe the safeguards in place for COVID-19, particularly widespread masking, have suppressed the flu.

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