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Health and Medicine

Oregon officials: Omicron could overwhelm state hospitals; response to focus on boosters, testing

Gov. Kate Brown announces the availability of booster vaccines to specific populations of qualifying people in Oregon, during an online press conference, Sept. 28, 2021. The governor will host an online press conference at noon on Dec. 17, 2021.
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Gov. Kate Brown announces the availability of booster vaccines to specific populations of qualifying people in Oregon, during an online press conference, Sept. 28, 2021. The governor will host an online press conference at noon on Dec. 17, 2021.

A key COVID-19 forecaster is warning that an omicron surge could peak with twice the number of Oregonians hospitalized as during the recent delta surge. Public health officials say getting booster shots to more older adults and other high-risk individuals in the next three weeks is critical to averting disaster — and offered the first details of a stepped up effort to distribute the shots.

In August, OHSU data scientist Peter Graven predicted — accurately — that the state was going to be hammered by the delta variant of COVID-19, and would come perilously close to running out of staffed hospital beds. That wave peaked in early September with 1,178 COVID-19 patients in Oregon hospitals. Hospitals in Oregon are still understaffed and struggling to recover from it.

Graven’s latest forecast indicates that an omicron surge could peak with between two and three times the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized as during the delta surge, according to public health officials who briefed OPB in advance of a noon press conference with the governor.
Watch that briefing live here:


Sobered by those numbers, the Oregon Health Authority is rolling out a five-point plan with the goal of getting booster doses to one million more Oregonians by the end of January and blunt the impact of omicron. The effort to more than double the number of Oregonians with booster shots is part of plans Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday.

Public health officials say getting booster shots to more older adults and other high-risk individuals in the next three weeks will be critical to averting disaster. They offered the first details of a stepped-up effort to distribute the shots. The state also committed to, before mid-January, providing hospitals with clearer guidance for triaging patients in a crisis “to equitably prioritize care if doctors and nurses are forced to make heart-breaking decisions in the face of limited intensive care beds, ventilators and other life-saving resources,” according to prepared remarks from health officials.

Sidelinger notes that the course of the pandemic remains highly uncertain, and the forecast is just one prediction of a possible outcome. Getting booster shots to more older adults, the potential availability of a new treatment, and changes in people’s behavior like increased mask wearing could all help blunt the number of hospitalizations triggered by a new wave of infections.

And omicron is likely less virulent than previous variants — a lucky break, but not by itself enough to protect the state against a wave of hospitalizations given the variant’s extreme transmissibility and immune escape, Sidelinger says.

Seventy-four percent of Oregonians have completed their initial two doses of vaccination, ranking Oregon 12th in the nation. Approximately 26% of Oregonians have received a booster or third dose. Among people age 65 and older, who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infection, 51% have received a booster or third dose, according to OHA.

Below is a summary of the Oregon Health Authority’s plan, provided by the agency:

1. Oregon will urge one million Oregonians to get boosters by the end of January:

To reach our 1 million booster goal, we will:

2. Oregon will focus boosters on people who are most vulnerable to becoming hospitalized if they catch the Omicron variant:

For under-vaccinated communities, we will:

3. Rapidly deliver new COVID-19 treatments and expand needed testing. New and coming monoclonal therapies and antiviral drugs offer the promise of protection against hospitalization. For some drugs, they are effective within a narrow window of time after infection. OHA is:

4. Support health care workers and hospitals in the face of the coming omicron surge.

5. Connect more people to boosters, treatments and testing.

This is a developing story. Watch for updates.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.