Although many Oregon hospitals remain full, state health officials are considering lifting masking requirements in health care settings if cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses continue their downward trend.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer and epidemiologist, told reporters on Thursday “there’s reason for optimism” as the spread of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (known as RSV) decrease. That’s expected to mean fewer hospitalizations caused by the viruses, he said.
“Overall, hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses have declined dramatically since early December,” said Sidelinger. “However, hospitals remain at or near capacity as large numbers of people continue seeking care for all types of medical conditions.”
Speaking during the Oregon Health Authority’s monthly COVID-19 press briefing, Sidelinger’s cautiously upbeat tone is a reversal from public health officials’ earlier dire messages about how the trio of viruses threatened to overwhelm hospital capacity.
Sidelinger presented figures showing that respiratory virus trends were moving in the right direction.
Just 5.2% of RSV tests are coming back positive and the virus is causing under two hospitalizations per 100,000 children, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, he said. That’s down from the week ending on November 19 when 25% of RSV tests were positive and the hospitalization rate was 13 per 100,000 children.
Influenza test positivity is now at 8% after peaking at 32.3% in December, said Sidelinger. But he said that there has been a slight increase in cases of Influenza B and urged the public to get flu shots.
While COVID-19 test positivity has increased in the last two weeks, COVID-19 related hospitalizations have been declining, he said. Sidelinger said that modeling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts it will be down from February.
The most recent forecasting from Oregon Health and Sciences University also points to declining spread of influenza and RSV, with COVID-19 cases expected to level off. According to the forecast, the number of boarded patients, those admitted to the hospital but kept in the emergency department because of a lack of capacity, was down to 217 on January 19, which is at levels before the winter surge.
In addition to less spread of respiratory viruses, 86% of adult Oregonians have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about a quarter have gotten the booster, Sidelinger said.
“If these trends continue, we anticipate being able to safely lift the health care masking requirement over the coming months,” said Sidelinger.
While most pandemic restrictions once characterized daily life were relaxed in 2021, the Oregon Health Authority in May 2022 enacted a requirement that masks be worn in most health care settings.
But Sidelinger added that the health authority would proceed cautiously in lifting the requirement and in consultation with health care providers. He also pointed out that hospital systems are still operating under a state of emergency then Gov. Kate Brown declared earlier in response to strains on the health care system.
“If we saw a large upsurge in cases of influenza due to influenza B that was causing increased hospitalizations that our hospital needed additional resources to deal with, that would impact our decision,” he said.