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Health and Medicine

Questions about omicron and boosters? Here are some answers

An Ruan, a second-year student in the OHSU School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program, dabs community member Weigiong Ye’s upper arm. Ruan injected Ye’s second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine March 27, 2021, at a clinic hosted by the Asian Health & Service Center.
OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett
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An Ruan, a second-year student in the OHSU School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program, dabs community member Weigiong Ye’s upper arm. Ruan injected Ye’s second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine March 27, 2021, at a clinic hosted by the Asian Health & Service Center.

Here’s a quick look at where things stand and what you should be doing as another COVID-19 surge looms.

Gov. Kate Brown estimates Oregon has about three weeks before the omicron variant hits with full force. She has set a goal of getting one million Oregonians booster shots by the end of January. Here’s a quick look at where things stand and what you should be doing as another COVID-19 surge looms.

How do we prepare for the omicron variant?

Public health authorities say the best way to prepare for omicron is to get vaccinated.

If it’s been six months since your second COVID-19 vaccination, get a booster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers you fully vaccinated if you’ve received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson drug. But federal health officials say that definition may change, and some colleges — including the University of Oregon — are already moving to require students and staff to get a booster.

Where can I get a booster?

First, check with your health insurer. Most insurers are setting up appointments for both boosters and vaccinations.

If you don’t have health insurance, check for appointments with the state and your local county health department.

Authorities say that if you can’t find an appointment straight away, go back later as new appointments are being scheduled all the time.

If you can’t find an appointment with your health insurance or the local health department, check nearby pharmacies. Many companies, including CVS and Rite Aid, are offering vaccines.

It’s also possible to simply call 211 for help in Oregon.

How dangerous is the omicron variant?

The CDC announced Tuesday that omicron is now the dominant version of the coronavirus. Last week, it accounted for 73% of new infections in the U.S.

Omicron is between three and five times as transmissible as the delta variant, but it is not believed to be as deadly.

Authorities are still very concerned, as omicron can send sufferers to the hospital. If large numbers of people end up in hospital with omicron, it takes attention away from sick people with other conditions. A forecast out of Oregon Health & Science University says the omicron surge could see twice as many hospitalizations as the delta surge earlier this year.

“That’s incredibly sobering,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County health officer.

But Vines said county staff are heeding the call.

“Multnomah County and several other (counties) worked over the weekend to start figuring out how we can expand vaccine and booster access quickly,” she said

Vines called Gov. Kate Brown’s one million booster goal aspirational.

“We need people to not just put this off until after the holidays,” she said.

Are there enough vaccine doses available?

There is no shortage of vaccine, according to Patrick Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority.

He said the state has received enough extra mRNA vaccine from the federal government to administer 140,000 booster doses.

So supply isn’t the problem. Staffing and demand are.

“The lack of staff to put shots in arms is our primary constraint that’s led to scarce appointments in some Oregon communities,” Allen said. “... We need every eligible Oregonian to come forward for a protective booster dose.”

You don’t need to provide proof of vaccination to get a booster, but your provider will want to know when you received your last shot. Boosters should be given at least six months after your last vaccination dose.

How accurate are omicron forecasts?

OHSU’s Dr. Peter Graven has a model that shows hospitalizations could peak at over 3,000 in February. That compares to 1,200 at the height of Oregon’s delta surge in September.

His forecasts have proved accurate in the past. But he said there’s an unprecedented degree of uncertainty in this one as he had to estimate omicron’s spread rate and virulence.

“There is more speculation here. We are trying to anticipate parameters that are not fully known,” Graven said last week.

Carri Chan with Columbia Business School uses data to help efficiently deliver health care. On Monday she said these kinds of forecasts are never perfect, but they can be helpful.

“Structurally and trend wise they actually tend to be quite accurate. But if you were assessing the exact number of infections, the exact number for the peak …I would argue none of them are correct,” Chan said.

What is the state of Oregon doing to prepare?

Brown is urging Oregonians to get their booster shots, and aiming to have one million booster shots delivered in Oregon by the end of January.

“I know that in some parts of the state it’s been a bit more difficult to get an appointment for a booster,” she said last week. “Please be patient as OHA works with our local partners in the next several days to ramp up capacity.”

The Oregon Health Authority last week rolled out a five-point plan to deal with omicron. Along with Brown’s booster goal, it includes prioritizing inoculations for older adults, especially people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The state will deploy mobile vaccination teams and work with communities to set up 35 extra vaccination events in addition to 93 already scheduled. The state will also add three new high-capacity vaccination sites to the six already open.

By the end of January, state leaders hope to open a large site in the Portland area to deliver more complex COVID-19 treatments such as monoclonal antibody therapy, in which people are injected with laboratory-produced molecules that act as substitute antibodies and restore the body’s natural immune response.

State health officials are also working to bring in staff from other states and do more work promoting the need for vaccines and boosters.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.