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About half of Multnomah County residents will have been infected with omicron in February, officials project.

PMG FILE PHOTO - During a briefing on COVID-19 conditions in Multnomah County Tuesday, Jan. 25, public health officials said they're unsure on whether the omicron wave is at or near its peak.Multnomah County public health officials say it's still unclear whether the omicron wave is at or near its peak as COVID-19 case rates continue to top the highs of previous surges.

Recent models have projected that new cases of COVID-19 may level off soon, with hospitalizations continuing to rise into February and peaking at about 1,500 statewide.

"COVID case numbers are eye-popping," said Dr. Jennifer Vines, health officer at Multnomah County, during a media briefing about current COVID-19 trends and the county's response Tuesday, Jan. 25. "There's a lot of speculation about whether we're at or near the peak in cases right now. We might be, but it's really hard to say, and we're frankly still quite concerned about hospitals."

County epidemiologists project that half of the county's population will have been infected with omicron between mid-December and sometime in February, Vines said.

"That speaks to just how quickly this virus moves," she said.

Health officials continue to see evidence that omicron, which accounted for 95% of COVID-19 infections last week, leads to milder disease, with lower rates of death and admissions to hospitals and intensive care units than during previous surges, Vines said.

As hospitalizations lag behind infections, health officials' main message remains for people to get vaccinated.

Noting that omicron tends to evade certain protections from vaccines, Vines said, "The really good news is that the vaccines continue to hold up against severe disease and hospitalization."

About two-thirds of cases in Multnomah County during the omicron wave have been breakthrough cases, Vines said, adding that 13% of breakthrough cases are among people who have received booster shots.

With a need to reduce new infections, Multnomah County Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey said masking still plays a key role in flattening the curve.

The Oregon Health Authority recently proposed indefinitely extending the state's indoor mask mandate, which is set to expire next month. At a hearing last week, most people who provided public testimony reportedly voiced opposition to the indefinite extension. State health officials plan to review testimony submitted through Monday, Jan. 24, before making a decision on extending the mandate.

Guernsey said people shouldn't expect to see additional restrictions being implemented.

"Things like closures or group size restrictions or things like that, we really don't consider those effective in where we're at right now," she said, adding that the benefits of such measures wouldn't be worth the costs. "Right now, we're really focusing on the very key approaches: vaccination, masking and stay home when you're sick."

Coming out of winter — peak respiratory disease season — Vines said she has optimism for spring and summer. The rapid onset of omicron waves elsewhere has typically been followed by equally rapid declines in cases, she said.

The effectiveness of vaccines "charts a longer-term path through settling into some kind of pattern around COVID that we're able to respond to without the level of disruptions that we've experienced these last two years," Vines said.

Asked about how the county can expect to know when the omicron wave peaks without data on how many people test positive using at-home tests, Lisa Ferguson, communicable disease manager for the county, said officials can look to other indicators, including how much emergency rooms and urgent care units are used, what kinds of symptoms people present, testing percent positivity rates and outbreak data.

"Even though our test numbers might be an overall undercount because of at-home tests or people who don't access testing, we can still look at those trends," Ferguson said.

Officials said they remain focused on recovering from and mitigating pandemic effects such as impacts on students' education, mental health service reductions and people's inability to access typical care for chronic conditions.

Public health officials are mindful that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by those effects of the pandemic, Guernsey said, adding that it's going to require community-wide efforts to recover.

"The issues that we're seeing arise and getting worse are longstanding issues that are embedded in our systems and in our larger community," she said. "They're not going to be easy to untangle, but if there is a silverling from this whole last two years, my hope is that everybody will dig in deep so that we can really uplift the solutions to these systemic issues."

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