Forecast: Omicron Could Peak in Oregon by Late January

But how many people will be hospitalized, and how the system will handle that influx, is a moving target

By Julia Silverman December 31, 2021

The big question for 2022: How will Oregon's hospitals hold up in the Omicron era?

Covid-19-related hospitalizations caused by the fast-moving Omicron variant could peak in Oregon by late January—about a month earlier than previously estimated—according to a year’s end forecast from Oregon Health and Science University released on Friday.

But pegging just how many people will be hospitalized because of Covid—and whether that will strain the state’s health care system and providers—is proving tricky, with numbers shifting on the regular.

Just two weeks ago, during a somber press conference, Peter Graven, the director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics whose forecasts are relied upon by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority, said there could be as many as 3,000 Omicron-related hospitalizations in Oregon by mid to late February. That's more than double the total during the summer of 2021, when the Delta variant pushed the state’s hospital capacity close to the brink.

Then, a week later and without the accompanying press conference, that figure was dialed back to 1,250 Covid-related hospitalizations by mid-February, in light of data from around the world suggesting that case counts and hospitalizations were diverging. For example, the United Kingdom is reporting that the risk of being hospitalized with Omicron is about half of what it is was under Delta, and far lower still for vaccinated people.  

On Friday, though, Graven’s estimate was revised upward, to 1,650 hospitalizations. That comes as case numbers have risen precipitously around the state, even though they are a likely undercount of true spread, given how many people are taking at-home rapid tests or are asymptomatic and unaware.

“Now is not the time to be resigned to getting COVID,” Graven said via a news release from OHSU. “It will be especially important to protect those most vulnerable to severe illness over the next few weeks.”

One complicating factor: Oregon does not appear to publicly release the breakdown of how many patients arrive at a hospital because of Covid-19, as opposed to how many arrive for other reasons and test positive, referred to as “incidental Covid.” Such patients do not necessarily require the same level or type of care that a patient with severe Covid would need. 

Nationally, some hospitals have begun releasing this breakdown, but not locally. Legacy Health Systems, one of the largest in the Portland metro area, does not track that particular datapoint, a spokesperson for the hospital group said Friday, while a spokesperson for OHSU said that breakdown was not immediately available. Representatives for Providence Health Systems and Kaiser Permanente did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It’s a key question both because of how fast Omicron is spreading and because of the increasing number of studies suggesting that it is more mild than its predecessors, particularly for healthy people who do not have underlying conditions.

Currently, there are 440 people in Oregon hospitalized with COVID, per the Oregon Health Authority, up about 100 people from this time last week, but well below the peak of 1,187 on September 1, 2021.

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