‘This virus will find you’

As Omicron cases surge, Oregon Health Authority updates state

Jan. 12, 2022 — On Jan. 7, representatives from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) held a press conference to update the public on the state’s fight against the Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

Before Omicron hit Oregon, the state’s single-day COVID case high was 3,207 on Aug. 27. The state surpassed that number on Dec. 30 and has broken its own record every day since. 

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon State Health Officer, opened the presser.

"You are in greater danger of getting the virus and passing along to others than at any time during this pandemic," said Sidelinger. "If you are ill with COVID-19 and have not yet been vaccinated, you cannot count on the acquired immunity to stave off the Omicron variant. This virus will find you."

He also gave the total for Thursday, Jan. 6, the day before the briefing. There were 10,451 new cases that day.

“This is not the way any of us wants to begin the new year,” Sidelinger said. “We are all tired of taking steps to fight the fires. We're anxious as we hear from more of our family and loved ones who are sick with or were exposed to COVID-19.”

Sidelinger mentioned that hospitals are once again facing issues because of a COVID surge, as has happened throughout the pandemic.

“Our hospitals are struggling to maintain the fragile balance between providing care for people who are ill with the virus and others needing medical care,” said Sidelinger.

The OHA is taking steps to alleviate the strain on hospitals and their patients. A search tool is being created with up to 1,000 additional clinicians to support nurse crisis response teams from across the healthcare system. OHA is also extending clinical staffing for hospitals, long term care facilities and congregate settings. 

In addition, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the deployment of up to 500 Oregon National Guard members to support frontline hospital workers.

“With more than 500 current hospitalizations and daily record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases, we are at another critical point in this pandemic — and the Oregon National Guard is stepping up again to assist,” said Brown. “While Guard members work to support our frontline health care workers, I am asking all Oregonians to continue to do your part to help. Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear your masks, and stay home when you are sick.”

According to Sidelinger, although Omicron appears to be very infectious, the state is far better prepared to fight the virus in 2022 compared to 2021 and 2020.

“We have expanded our vaccine capacity, several mass vaccination sites are open and area opportunities for boosters are widely available,” said Sidelinger. 

This includes four new high-volume vaccination sites at the Florence Events Center, Pony Village Mall in North Bend, the Roseburg Public Library and Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde, along with six older sites.

Science has repeatedly shown that people are best protected from the virus with any of the three available vaccines, followed by a booster shot. 

“We have significantly ramped up our testing capacities,” Sidelinger continued. “This week, the state began receiving some of the recently ordered 6 million COVID-19 antigen rapid test kits which will yield 12 million tests. The test will presume to produce results in just 15 minutes. These testing kits will be offered to people around the state in some of the communities most impacted by COVID-19. And they'll be free of charge.”

Sidelinger also mentioned that Oregon will embrace the Center for Disease Control’s new shortened quarantine period of five days.

"This new guidance will shorten the period of time that people are asked to stay home, with minimal increased risk in spreading the virus," Sidelinger said. "Anyone who has been exposed to the virus is urged to get tested five days afterward. People showing symptoms should limit contact with others until a negative test confirms no infection."

Next to speak was OHSU’s Dr. Peter Graven, who talked about projection models and what the numbers tell us to expect from Omicron.

Graven mentioned that the peak of hospitalizations is expected to be at the end of January at about 1,650 patients. 

“That is 30 percent higher than the peak of Delta,” he said.

Graven pointed out that though Omicron does not get people as sick as previous variants “that doesn’t help with the all-at-once impact on hospital capacity we’re going to see here.”

ODE Director Colt Gill was up next. He stated that the state created a “north star” before the school year, essentially a goal to, at minimum, maintain in-person learning through the end of the year. 

Gill mentioned that some schools have closed, and others may follow; however, Gill pointed out that widespread transmission of Omicron is not completely unavoidable. Any efforts schools make to help students to maintain social distancing, masking and other mitigations will be helpful. 

According to Gill, even with these steps, schools will not be able to avoid being affected by Omicron. 

“While the severity may be less for most people, especially those up to date with of their vaccinations, the community wide impacts are as significant as ever,” said Gill. 

Staffing shortages caused by infections by students and staff, combined with the required quarantine times that go with them, will almost certainly occur, but at least with the new shorter, five day isolation time students and staff will be back sooner. 

“Thank you, Oregonians, for doing all that you can to help us reach our North Star for our kids this year,” said Gill. “Let’s keep our school doors open.”