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Officials say COVID hospitalizations should continue to fall, but deaths will rise for another few weeks.

PMG FILE PHOTO - State health officials say COVID vaccinations and boosters are keeping many who contract the omicron variant from being hospitalized.Oregon has passed the crest of the ultra-contagious omicron wave of COVID-19, but still faces a dangerous time before levels drop back to where they were in June, state health officials said Thursday, Feb. 10.

"The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has peaked and will steadily recede until reaching pre-omicron levels by the end of March," according to the forecast by Oregon Health & Science University.

But the fifth and most widely spread of the waves of virus that have hit Oregon in the past two years is not over.

"It's important for people to stick with masking through the next several weeks," said Peter Graven, director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics.

The trend is backed up by the averaging of 13 major medical, university and scientific forecast models submitted regularly to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hitting the peak and starting down does not mean the wave is over. In a briefing with state lawmakers late Monday, Graven said he was seeing sustained trends that omicron is very high, but receding.

"I believe we are at the peak and we are kind of bouncing around a little bit as it comes down," he said.

Graven's forecast shows Oregon is on track to drop below the key number of 400 hospitalizations per day.

Gov. Kate Brown has said she will end the indoor mask requirements when the state has fewer than 400 patients with COVID-19 in Oregon hospitals, or March 31, whichever comes sooner.

OHSU forecasts that the hospitalizations mark will be reached March 30.

Hospitalizations are the most accurate measure of the impact and direction of a virus surge. Graven's report predicts the state would be under 1,000 hospitalizations per day by Feb. 18, drop under 500 around March 23, under 200 by April 23 and by the second week of May fall below 100.

Oregon has fared relatively well so far in the omicron surge with lower-than-projected illness and deaths.

Estimates of severe cases of COVID-19 in OHSU reports near the beginning of 2022 showed up to 3,000 people could be hospitalized in Oregon on peak days in the wave.

"In the current surge, a lot more states went up much, much higher than us and more steeply," Graven said.

OHSU projected 80% of the state population followed the indoor mask mandate during recent weeks. That's a level similar to mask-wearing in the northeastern states first hit by omicron.

Oregon had its guard up two weeks prior to the wave moving across the nation to the West Coast.

With masking and a relatively high level of vaccination, Oregon was dealt a less powerful blow than other states where the safeguards were ignored or actively opposed.

The hospitals have filled up during the omicron wave with mostly unvaccinated people either suffering from severe cases of the virus, or hospitalized for other reasons — surgery, accidents, heart attacks — but blood tests showing they were positive for COVID-19.

Boosters lower risk

The omicron wave was far less damaging for those who were vaccinated, and especially had the booster shot, Graven said.

"Once you get boosted, you pretty much get removed from the possibility of getting hospitalized for much," Graven said.

While he wouldn't want to say the booster ensured absolutely no chance of illness or death, "from a probability perspective it is."

The overall result in Oregon has been a lower peak but a flatter curve that spread new cases over a longer period of time.

Graven said the typical wave behavior pattern of "fear and fatigue" was again showing up, with residents taking strong action as the virus numbers mounted, but now tiring of the effort and being quicker to spend time indoors with others, going to restaurants and indoor events.

"That is kind of a true metric of fatigue," Graven said. "People getting through a surge and trying to get back to normal."

The omicron variant spread wider and faster than any wave during the two years of the world pandemic.

While less lethal for most people in individual cases, the tidal wave of cases is following the same pattern of infection, severe cases and deaths rising in order, then declining in the same way.

"Unfortunately, there will be more deaths," Graven said.

The forecast released Thursday, Feb. 10, shows the average number of deaths rising from about 13 per day now to a peak of 18 in early March. It then will follow the same path as infections and severe cases with a relatively steep decline. Deaths are projected under five per day by the end of March.

Graven said that barring a new, virulent variant, COVID-19 could move into an endemic phase much like other viruses.

Flu foiled again

In addition, the waves of COVID-19 that have led to so many people wearing masks and taking other precautions around meeting people has led to a plummeting flu rate.

OHSU reported 35 positive tests for influenza last week. In a similar period just before the pandemic, Oregon recorded 1,008 positive cases.

"A certain number of people are going to be infected all the time," Graven said. "It could go in a seasonal pattern. It will result in some hospitalizations and some deaths, but hopefully not as many."

Roll-call of encouragement

The forecast came after the Oregon Health Authority daily report was a roll-call of mostly encouraging numbers.

The Health Authority reported 28,378 new cases of COVID-19 during the week ending Feb. 6, down 35% from the prior week.

The percentage of tests that are positive for COVID-19 has fallen to 12.9%. A week ago it was 22.9%

The pattern was not the same across the state. Sparsely populated Wheeler County had the highest per capita number of cases, but it represented just four new infections. Jefferson and Crook counties were the two larger counties with the highest per capita infection rates.

With the exception of Wheeler County's 75% positive case rate based on a single-digit sample, the highest percentage of tests coming back positive were 36.1% in Curry County and 35.8% in Baker County.

Counties where positive tests were 10% or below included Washington, Benton, Gilliam, Grant, Lake, Morrow and Wasco.

While infections were off sharply and hospitalizations were declining, the last indicator to move in most pandemic waves is deaths.

The Health Authority reported 57 new COVID-19-related deaths on Thursday, bringing the total for the pandemic to 6,322.

A compilation of state and local public health reports updated daily by the New York Times counts the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents to show a comparative level of the virus activity in states of different sizes.

The national average is 68. Oregon ranked 16th highest among the 50 states with 84 cases per 100,000. Maryland was lowest, with 21. Alaska had the highest number, at 177.

Oregon's rate of new infections was down 55% compared to two weeks ago, but still rated the 40th slowest rate of decline in the nation. The national average was down 63%.

The steepest rate of decline was down 79% in Oklahoma. Maine was down 9 percent, the smallest rate.

A key hopeful statistic: No state showed an increase in case compared to two weeks ago.

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported Thursday that, since the first cases of COVID-19 in China was announced Dec. 31, 2019, the virus and its variants have swept the globe, causing 405.3 million cases and more than 5.78 million deaths.

The United States has reported more than 77.4 million cases. The nation's 915,182 killed by the pandemic is the highest of any country in the world.


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