COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Oregon, thanks to the very transmissible omicron subvariant BA2, but with hospitalizations remaining low the state is not currently considering a return to mandated universal indoor masking, deputy state epidemiologist Tom Jeanne said Wednesday.

Oregon reported 740 documented cases of COVID on Tuesday, the highest number since early March. The true figure is perhaps five to 10 times that amount, deputy state epidemiologist Tom Jeanne acknowledged, in part because many people are asymptomatic and don’t realize that they have the virus.

But that’s been true since the earliest days of the pandemic; a more relevant factor now is the widespread availability of at-home testing, which have been scarce during previous surges. Positive results from at-home tests are generally not reported to the state, making it hard to pinpoint an exact count of case numbers, Jeanne says.

But the state has much more precise data on hospitalizations, which are a fraction of where they were at the peak of the delta and omicron waves—122 COVID-related patients were in hospitals statewide as of Tuesday. Because cases are rising, hospitalizations likely will, too, Jeanne said, but current projections suggest only a “slight increase” between now and June. That means that at least in the short term, the health care system should be able to handle the impact without having to cancel elective surgeries or ration care for other patients.

“At this point what we care about the most is our hospital capacity, the ability of our health care system to treat people and keep them alive if they get COVID-19,” Jeanne said on Wednesday. Though there is no statewide mandate, public health continues to recommend masking in crowded indoor spaces, particularly for those who are at high risk from COVID.

Still, at this stage of the pandemic, strain on the hospital system will also likely be blunted by both a high rate of vaccination among Oregon’s eligible population, and by acquired immunity—people who have recently had and recovered from COVID, though that protection wanes over time, Jeanne says.

The state also has a steady supply of Paxlovid, a therapeutic drug that can be prescribed to those who test positive and are at high risk of developing severe COVID-related complications, says Paul Cieslak, an infectious disease specialist and public health physician with OHA.

“Paxlovid offers 89 percent of protection against hospitalization for patients who take it soon after their conditions begin,” Cieslak says. (Find a location for a test-to-treat program near you here.) “We’re getting over 1,200 courses of this per week. There’s a considerable amount of it out there.”

One notable change this week is the lifting of mask mandates on public transportation, including airplanes, at airports, and on buses, streetcars, and MAX trains locally. Jeanne says it is “hard to say” how that might impact case rates, particularly in the context of changes in the seasons and in people’s attitudes.

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