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Forecast: Oregon will see far fewer omicron-linked COVID hospitalizations than originally feared

A patient critically ill with COVID-19 is pictured here in OHSU's intensive care unit on Aug. 19, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
A patient critically ill with COVID-19 is pictured here in OHSU's intensive care unit on Aug. 19, 2021.

OHSU cut its original hospitalization forecast by more than half, based on reports that, while the omicron virus is leading to more COVID-19 infections, people are not getting as severely ill.

A new projection from Oregon Health and Science University shows COVID-19 hospitalizations peaking at about 1,250 in mid-February, driven by a surge in the omicron variant. That’s a significant drop from earlier forecasts.

OHSU data scientist Peter Graven had sounded alarms in a Dec. 17 press conference that an omicron surge could lead to between two and three times the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized as there had been during the surge in the delta variant. His original model predicted a peak of between 3,000 to 2,000 hospitalizations linked to the pandemic, depending on the preventive steps Oregonians take in the coming months

OHSU officials are now revising their estimates. While forecasterssay Oregon is poised to “experience an unprecedented wave of infections” from the omicron variant, they say it could lead to fewer hospitalizations than they initially believed.

In a press release, OHSU said it’s adjusted its predicted peak hospitalization numbers from as many as 3,000 to about 1,250.

OHSU senior communications specialist Erik Robinson said the forecast “reflects changes in assumptions about omicron,” including new data from Europe that indicates a lower hospitalization rate from this variant than from other strains of the virus.

Graven’s most recent forecast uses data from Denmark that shows the hospitalization rate appears to be about 70% lower with omicron than from illness caused by the delta variant.

The Denmark study is part of a growing body of early research that suggests that the omicron coronavirus variant may be less likely to result in severe illness and lead to a hospital visit. Earlyestimates from researchers in London suggest people infected with omicron are 15% to 20% less likely, on average, to be hospitalized than those with the delta variant, and 40% to 45% less likely to stay in the hospital for one or more nights, as reported by The New York Times.

Graven predicts that if Oregonians take steps to reduce the spread of the virus — such as getting vaccinated and boosted — the surge in hospitalizations would be around what people saw during the surge in delta cases. Hospitalizations for the delta variant peaked at 1,187 people on Sept. 1.

If people don’t take steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, OHSU’s model predicts, as many as 1,700 people could be hospitalized by February. That has the potential to overwhelm Oregon’s hospitals.

According to the latest figures from the Oregon Health Authority, a total of 398 people are presently hospitalized due to COVID-19 across the state.

The state also reported 1,900 daily COVID-19 diagnoses Tuesday, the most new cases reported in a single day since September.

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

Rebecca Ellis is a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before joining OPB, she was a Kroc Fellow at NPR, filing stories for the National Desk in Washington D.C. and reporting from Salt Lake City.