Skip to main content

Statesman Journal: Coronavirus: OHSU Model Of Pandemic Paints Grim Picture, Questions Oregon's Response

March 22, 2020

Hospitals in Oregon could need an additional 1,400 beds by April 16 due to the growing number of people expected to contract the coronavirus and previously infected individuals becoming ill, according to modeling constructed by OHSU and presented to lawmakers Friday.

It is estimated that the number of cases in the state will double every six days, with about 20 percent of cases requiring hospitalization and an average stay of 14 days. Oregon's hospital systems already operate at around 95 percent capacity under normal circumstances.

"If we under-prepare and under-react, more Oregonians could die," said Dr. Danny Jacobs, president of Oregon Health and Science University. "Calling the situation 'challenging' is not adequate to describe what we think we're about to experience."

Top faculty from OHSU also told lawmakers the state won't know for a couple weeks if any of the social distancing tactics recently put into practice had a significant effect on slowing the growth of the pandemic. 

Peter Graven, health systems economist at OHSU, said that if the number of coronavirus cases in Oregon was accurate at the time social distancing was recommended, then the number of new cases should slow significantly.

However, the number of cases was almost certainly higher.

"While we know the actions will have an impact, due to testing lags we do not know what the current situation was when we took action," Graven said. 

The model, updated daily, is being used by OHSU and other hospitals to prepare for an initial surge of cases. It only extends through the middle of April because our actions right now will directly impact those figures.

This is one of the central problems in combating the coronavirus pandemic — if government officials wait to take action until a significant number of cases are identified, it is already too late to slow the spread.

"We would love to know exactly what's going to happen, but at this point in time, all we can do is model it and follow the hospitalizations moving forward to understand whether or not the interventions that we are taking on a day-to-day basis are flattening the curve," said Dr. Renee Edward, chief medical officer at OHSU Health.

Government leaders and public health experts have asked the public to stay in their homes as much as possible and keep at least six feet of distance from other people while out in public to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The goal is to "flatten" the epidemiological curve — reduce the number of coronavirus cases happening simultaneously and instead spread the number of infection over months to avoid overloading health care systems.

In the meantime, Oregon lawmakers are beginning to discuss what actions the state Legislature could take to lessen the crisis' impact on Oregonians.

Those conversations began in earnest Friday during the second meeting of the new joint committee on coronavirus response after the presentation from OHSU faculty.

There are 25 main proposals fall into three categories: stability for individuals and families over 90 days, health care system needs and short-term employer support.

They include: providing flexibility and support to the Department of Human Services for the food stamp program; creating a grace period for non-payment of insurance premiums; stabilizing and improving access to the state's unemployment insurance fund; increase child care for first responders while schools are closed; permitting liquor sales for takeout food orders to aide restaurant sales; and adding a series of requirements for banks and lenders to assist businesses.

Takeaways: What we know about coronavirus COVID-19 and Salem-Keizer schools

Lawmakers will continue debating these and other proposals during a committee hearing Monday morning.

It is expected that there will be a minimum of three special sessions of the Legislature this year to respond to this public health and economic crisis.

Contact reporter Connor Radnovich at [email protected] or 503-399-6864, or follow him on Twitter at @CDRadnovich.

This article was originally published by the Statesman Journal, one of two dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.