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Oregon sees encouraging signs as COVID-19 surge wanes

Health officials ask public to keep helping hospitals

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Oregon fell to 2,653 Friday as the state emerges from the omicron variant-fueled surge, but state health experts asked the public to keep helping while hospitals remain under severe strain.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Oregon hospitals fell below 1,000 — dipping to 947 Friday — but hospital capacity remains tight, according to Oregon Health Authority data.

For 21 days in a row, Oregon saw COVID-19 patient counts over 1,000, officials said.

“The worst of the omicron surge appears to be behind us. The virus is losing momentum, but we are not yet free of its grip. Newly diagnosed daily cases of COVID-19 have fallen 71% from the peaks we experienced only three weeks ago. Test positivity, while still alarmingly high, is declining,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist, said in a press conference Friday.

Sidelinger said COVID-19 hospitalizations from the omicron wave appear to have crested in late January, but the state isn’t out of danger yet.

He noted hospitals are still relying on 1,300 Oregon National Guard members and nearly 1,200 medical professionals Oregon brought in from other states.

“As infections continue to slow, we anticipate that daily hospitalizations will remain high for several more weeks before returning to pre-omicron levels,” Sidelinger said.

He said Oregonians stepped up to dampen COVID-19 hospitalizations by getting vaccinated, getting booster shots, wearing masks and limiting get-togethers. He offered repeated thanks to residents during the press conference.

Oregon plans to lift the state indoor mask mandate on schools March 31 and could lift the mandate sooner for indoor workplaces.

“Our emergence from the omicron onslaught depends on our continued diligence over these next two months. We cannot risk squandering our hard-earned progress, when a return to normal life is finally, and at long last, within our reach,” Sidelinger said. “COVID-19 will not be gone, but we will not have the profound impacts on our daily lives that it still has. That is when we can live with COVID-19.”

Sidelinger said some residents may choose to wear masks after mandates are lifted, including those at heightened risk because they aren’t vaccinated, have health conditions or live with at-risk people. He asked people to be patient and respectful about other people’s mask decisions.

COVID-19 hospitalizations would jump back to nearly the peak level of the omicron surge if the state lifted its mask mandate immediately, according to Peter Graven, director of the Oregon Health & Science University Office of Advanced Analytics.

The COVID-19 hospitalization count would increase by about 120 people and numbers would remain high for much longer without masking, he said.

“It’s important for people to stick with masking through the next several weeks,” Graven said. “Even though our forecast projects light at the end of a very long tunnel, we can’t lose sight of the fact that hospitals in Oregon are still struggling to deliver timely care for everyone who needs it.”

Oregon’s peak COVID-19 hospitalization count during the omicron surge was about one-third lower per capita than elsewhere in the nation, according to OHSU.

Graven said Oregonians’ commitment to protecting themselves and others is paying off.

“We also know that the virus continues to mutate and spread, as we saw with delta and omicron,” he said. “That’s why it’s critical for people to get vaccinated and boosted so that we’re able to handle future mutations while maintaining timely access to medical care that all Oregonians expect and deserve.”

Jackson County reported 186 new cases and two more COVID-19-related deaths Friday. Josephine County had 113 new cases and no deaths.

Rogue Valley hospitals were caring for 122 patients with the virus Friday, according to hospitalization data.

On Friday, all regions of the state were below their omicron hospitalization peaks.

OHA reported 12 additional COVID-19-related deaths statewide Friday.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.