File photo: Chas Hundley

Oregon is facing a surge from the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that by early February could put twice as many people in the hospital as the Delta variant, state officials announced Friday.

That forecast, by Oregon Health & Science University, comes as infections and hospitalization from the Delta variant are waning. The forecast shows that Omicron will likely sweep through the population in the next two to three weeks, becoming the dominant strain. 

By February, hospitalizations could surge past 3,000, surpassing those for Delta.

“Once again, many Oregonians will need a staffed hospital bed, which are in drastically short supply now around the state,” Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer of OHSU, said during the conference that included Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Health Authority officials.

Their main message was that Oregonians who are not vaccinated need to do so and that those aged 16 and older who’ve had two vaccine shots need to get a booster dose.

They aim to get 1 million more Oregonians boosted by the end of January, according to Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority.

Though scientists only have preliminary data, research published by British scientists show that booster doses, especially in the weeks after they’ve been given, increase the protection against Omicron.

“We have about a three-week window to prepare for this next surge to do everything we can,” Brown said. “Boosters work and are incredibly effective. “If you aren’t yet vaccinated, now is the time. This truly can be a matter of life or death.”

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The Oregon Health Authority plans to step up access to the vaccine by adding three more high-capacity vaccination sites and provide extra staffing to clinics so they can expand hours to administer shots Some people have had difficulty getting a booster dose, but Allen said that’s not because Oregon lacks supplies. Instead, health care clinics and hospitals lack staff.

“The lack of staff is our primary constraint,” Allen said.

He said the health authority will extend a contract with a temporary staffing agency to get more staff into clinics, especially those that serve low-income Oregonians.

The state also plans to organize mobile vaccine clinics for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Nearly 90% of long-term care residents have been vaccinated, but a much lower percentage has received a booster dose. 

Just over 50% of those aged 65 and older have received a booster dose, Allen said. State data show that about one-quarter of adults in Oregon have received their third dose.

The state also plans to increase access to treatment for this infected with the virus. He said the state will create a site in the Portland area to offer monoclonal antibody infusions. Those have been shown to be highly effective in people early in an infection when the virus has not yet taken a firm hold.

“The site will be open seven days a week, treating 350 people,” he said.

The state has no plans now to impose new Covid-19 restrictions, such as requiring masks outdoors, imposing limits on crowds in concert venues or even closing businesses. But Brown didn’t rule that out.

“Everything’s on the table,” she said.

She plans to meet with business leaders and labor representatives to see what more steps can be done to ease the impact of Omicron.

But Oregon is not likely to escape a spike in infections and hospitalizations, said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist.

“Even with less severe disease, it can have serious impacts on our health care system because more people are getting sick,” Sidelinger said.

The only good news is that Peter Graven, OHSU’s forecaster, does not expect Oregon to see a spike in deaths.

Nevertheless, the Oregon Health Authority plans to give hospitals so-called crisis-of-care standards to follow when they have to decide which patient to treat. The agency had worked on one but received backlash from disability rights advocates who feared that the most vulnerable Oregonians would be discriminated against.

After the state officials made their announcement, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health System said in a statement: “Today’s alarming forecast about the arrival and eventual spread of the omicron variant in Oregon is a stark reminder of the need to protect ourselves and our communities. Hospital staffing and capacity are overwhelmed from the delta surge, seasonal influenza, and patients needing urgent, delayed care. Now, more than ever, is the time to do all we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors from COVID.”

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.