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New COVID wave coming to Oregon, forecaster says

New variant, ‘Arcturus,’ is expected to drive a new surge in cases, and it may come with additional cases of pink eye
April 17, 2023

This article has been expanded to incorporate additional reporting.

Peter Graven’s latest report said hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 are down, and so are the indicators of the virus found in wastewater testing.

And yet the Oregon Health & Science University economist who’s been doing COVID-19 forecasts since early in the pandemic said Oregon will soon see a new wave of hospitalizations of people with COVID, one that will peak in late June.

It will be sparked by the spread of a new variant that first gained prominence in India, known as “Arcturus.” It's a subvariant of Omicron, its more well-known cousin that became dominant after first being detected in late 2021.

Acturus, also known as  XBB.1.16, is expected to be the most transmissible COVID variant yet. An Oregon Health Authority spokesman told The Lund Report that while it has not been detected in state testing, “it’s probably arrived in Oregon.”

COVID affects individuals differently and, anecdotally, can hit the same person more severely at different times. It is a particular threat to immunocompromised people. On a population level immunity has grown, and the number of cases requiring hospitalization has not reached the peak of the Delta variant in the summer of 2021. That said, studies have shown that a condition called long COVID affects a significant number of people, with potential lasting effects on neurological functioning; on blood vessels including vascular disease; lung impairment and damage to other organs. It can also increase the risk of diabetes.

With Arcturus, statewide hospitalizations of people with COVID are expected to reach a peak of about 500, placing them at a level not seen since February 2022, according to Graven’s report

The number of hospitalizations will, in part, reflect the prevalence of the disease in the population. “In most cases COVID is not likely to be the primary cause of the hospitalization,” Graven wrote.

Some media reports have asserted a link between Arcturus and conjunctivitis, or pink eye.

The idea of a June wave might surprise people who’ve come to think of COVID-19 as a seasonal surge, much like the flu.

Graven said new variants tend to drive waves, combined with the constant cycling of people’s immunization levels that makes them become susceptible to a virus to which they hadn’t been exposed, including vaccination, in a while.

“We don’t have evidence yet that it’s going to be seasonal. If you look at the waves so far, they’ve been kind of every time of year and largely driven based on which variant is present,” he said.

Graven’s focus is predicting hospital capacity issues, and said that over the last year the impact of another respiratory virus, RSV, was a bigger issue than COVID because children with serious symptoms overwhelmed pediatric units. The flu also had a bigger impact than COVID, he said. 

He expects next year’s RSV season to be less severe thanks to increased immunity among children. As for COVID's future, it will depend on what future variants bring.

While it’s common to think of COVID as gone, the reality is it’s everywhere, Graven said. But most people, either through previous infections or vaccination, have developed a level of immunity to the variants circulating, keeping symptoms relatively mild for most people. His model estimates 84 percent of Oregonians have been infected, even if they don’t know it, and “The average person’s had it over two times.”

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.