December 17, 2021

Oregon is expecting a surge in COVID-19 cases starting mid-January as the more contagious omicron variant takes hold, with hospitalizations peaking by the end of February, according to new disease modeling released Friday by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Health & Science University. 

The omicron variant is expected to cause a new wave of illness that will send more than twice as many people to the hospital as Delta at its peak

Without a widespread, statewide commitment from one million or more Oregonians to get vaccinated and boosted, and without a commitment to wearing masks indoors, the surge could land more than twice as many people in the hospital as the Delta variant, which caused about 1,200 people to be hospitalized at its September peak, the OHSU/OHA modeling shows.

But mitigating measures must happen now, health officials warn, Oregon has just a three-week window, starting now, to minimize the impact of omicron.

“I had hoped to share better news today,” OHSU professor and disease analyst Peter Graven said at a Friday press event convened by Gov. Kate Brown. “In Oregon, we expect a surge by mid January. By the time we reach a peak, the number of people hospitalized could eclipse the number of people hospitalized with Delta. It is dramatic.”

On Friday Brown released a statewide “Omicron Response Plan” that calls upon one million Oregonians to get their boosters no later than Jan. 31. 

“Vaccines are the strongest defense against COVID-19,” she said. “Boosters provide a critical layer of protection.”

Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines also stressed that now is the time to blunt the omicron variant’s impact.

Those who are due for a booster should get one now, and anyone who has yet to get their first doses of the COVID-19 virus should not wait. And everyone should immediately double down on masking, minimizing indoor gatherings and stay home if you’re sick or if you think you may have been exposed.

The County’s primary care clinics are already offering boosters to their patients. REACH clinics also offer the booster at their clinics. Other Public Health vaccine clinics will also begin offering boosters at their Latino Network and IRCO sites this week, joining efforts by the state to significantly increase access and availability.

And even as Oregonians do everything they can to blunt the expected increase in omicron infections, health officials say people should still expect they may become ill, and to prepare for other disruptions to their daily lives, such as delays in supply chains.

Vines urged people to make sure they have bulk and storage foods to last them two weeks, as well as extra medications and pet supplies, in case they are exposed or have to isolate. That’s especially important heading into the coldest weeks of the year, when ice and snow can slow travel.

“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Vines said. “We have a window for action that each of us can take advantage of. Protect yourself and your household: Aim to get vaccinated or boosted in the next three weeks.”

Early studies suggest omicron is much more transmissible than the delta variant that’s been dominant since the summer. Early estimates show that for every 10 unvaccinated people exposed to the virus, seven to  eight will become infected. That's edging closer to the highly contagious measles virus, widely considered one of the most contagious airborne diseases. 

Oregon's hospitals had about 1,200 COVID-19 patients during the peak of the Delta surge.

The omicron variant is also less responsive to vaccines; about one in two people who are fully vaccinated and exposed to the virus will contract the disease. And once infected with the omicron variant, people who are fully vaccinated are less protected from severe illness compared to other variants. That’s why Oregon health officials will be working hard these next few weeks to dramatically expand access to booster shots, which are believed to restore some of those protections.

Graven, the OHSU professor who’s accurately modeled past waves, said Friday that omicron has not yet been shown to cause more severe disease in individuals, but it will cause more severe disease overall because it will spread quickly. Projections show this could lead to a surge in hospitalizations beginning next month and peaking at the end of February, with as many as 3,000 people hospitalized.

But modeling suggests if enough people get their boosters, and if everyone changes their behavior — by wearing masks and avoiding gatherings — it could drop down to about 2,000.

State and local agencies are already working to make boosters widely and readily available. Anyone who needs a booster can check with their doctor or visit one of the high-volume vaccine sites opening around the state.

Find out about local vaccine clinics through Multnomah County’s Let’s Get Vaccinated Webpage.