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Omicron Variant Spurs Mixed COVID-19 Signals

Cases are expected to increase, but state officials don't plan to reimpose pandemic restrictions.
3D rendering of the omicron variant of COVID-19. | SHUTTERSTOCK
March 29, 2022

An upswing in COVID-19 cases in Oregon is expected to hit next week, driven by infections of the hyper-contagious BA.2 version of the omicron variant, according to a new state report.

The forecast from the Oregon Health & Science University shows a much lower peak for the new wave of cases, topping out at under 300 hospitalizations per day in the first week of May, then resuming a downward trend until reaching current levels again by late June.

"The primary forecast shows a slight increase in hospitalized patients as the impacts of BA2 and reduced COVID restrictions are experienced," said the report written by Dr. Peter Graven, the chief COVID-19 forecaster at OHSU.

The forecast is part of the mixed medical and political signals around the nation as the omicron surge that began in late November and peaked in mid-January has rapidly dropped to levels not seen since before the delta variant spike began at the end of June 2021.

As of Friday, the statistics in Oregon showed a precipitous drop-off. The Oregon Health Authority on Friday reported 189 new cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. Oregon hospitals reported 157 patients with COVID-19, down four from the day before. There are 26 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units, up one from Thursday's report.

Positive test results — a key indicator of future growth of the virus — were at 2.5%, down from the high point of 22.6% in mid-January. OHA has said throughout the pandemic that a rate of 5% or under was manageable for health care providers.

The pandemic in Oregon reached two milestones over the past week, passing 7,000 deaths and 700,000 cases. As of Friday, there have been 7,035 deaths and 702,750 reported infections.

The expected rise in cases is due to two factors, one expected, but the other an unwelcome surprise.

Even before the official lifting of indoor face mask requirements, compliance with safeguards was waning. OHSU forecasters said a slowing of the drop in cases was likely as more people became exposed.

But the loosened restrictions also came as the BA.2 "subvariant" arrived in Oregon. Beginning this week, OHA has started tracking BA.2 cases, which have been small but rising. Analysis of waste water around the state has shown traces of BA.2.

Last week, nearly all states were showing a rapid decline in cases. The BA.2 infections are seen as the main reason nine states are now showing a reversal in the trend.

BA.2 has spread rapidly in Asia and Europe. Twice as contagious as its already superspreading cousin BA.1, the BA.2 virus has caused a tsunami of new cases in China, which is reporting its highest infection rate of the 29-month pandemic, which began in Wuhan at the end of December 2019.

The World Health Organization reported 18 European countries are seeing a rise in new cases.

The WHO said Friday that BA.2 was able to spread because of what it called premature removal of mask and other social distancing rules.

But the mixed messaging from medical and political sources continues. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has announced the state of emergency that's been in place since March 2020 will end on April 1.

New York ended its vaccine mandate for athletes and performers. Los Angeles schools have ended masking. The U.S. Capitol will reopen for public tours next week. Hawaii was the last state to end indoor masking mandates earlier this month. The rate of people getting a first shot of vaccine has dropped off since early in the year.

While President Joe Biden continues to ask Congress for an increase in COVID-19 aid, the White House Easter Egg Roll is on for the first time since 2019.

All omicron variants so far have proven to be significantly more contagious than previous COVID-19 spikes, with the latest OHA statistics showing 61.9% of new infections were in unvaccinated people, while 37.7% were vaccine "breakthrough cases." Of those, 52.7% were fully vaccinated and boosted.

Most federal, state and local political leaders across the country have said they won't impose new restrictions unless a more virulent variant appears. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are considering a request from vaccine-makers Pfizer and Moderna to approve a second booster shot for either the elderly or all adults. The shots have already been approved for immuno-compromised people and some foreign nations, including Israel, are offering the fourth shot to the general public.

A federal advisory panel is meeting April 6 to discuss vaccination policy, but action could come earlier.

This story was originally published by Oregon Capital Bureau.