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Peak yet to come as Oregon sets daily COVID-19 case record

Emily Williams, a registered nurse on one of the intensive care units at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland wipes down her face shield with disinfectant on Aug. 19. Oregon health officials predict the number of COVID-19 cases will reach its peak within the next week.  (Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Pool photo)
By Sara Cline Associated Press

PORTLAND – Oregon health officials predict the number of COVID-19 cases will reach its peak within the next week amid a boom caused by the omicron surge.

And authorities believe in early February coronavirus-related hospitalizations will likely surpass previous surge’s numbers.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said Friday the omicron variant is fueling “steadily rising hospitalizations, record shattering daily cases and staggering test positivity rates. This is distressing for all of us.”

The Oregon Health Authority reported 10,947 new coronavirus cases on Friday – a new record. Prior to omicron, the highest single-day case tally in Oregon was 3,207 new cases in August 2021.

Although Friday’s case count is a record for the state, it is likely that the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 is much higher.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a discrepancy between the number of cases reported to public health and the true number of COVID-19 cases,” Tim Heider, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, told the Associated Press. “Initially, this was true because of the proportion of COVID-19 cases that cause mild or no symptoms. Over time, testing acceptance has also driven this discrepancy. The use of at-home self-test kits has furthered this discrepancy.”

As more and more people use at-home self-test kits – giving them an instant, at times inaccurate, answer whether or not they are infected with COVID-19 – they are not required to report their results to the state, likely resulting in a significant undercount of cases.

Although the undercount impacts health officials ability to understand the “true burden” on disease in real time, Heider said it does not impact “our ability to respond to surges appropriately” nor does it effect the state’s federal resource allocations.

Earlier in the pandemic, daily case counts played a pivotal role in shaping the policy responses to the pandemic. In the first half of 2021, capacity restrictions in Oregon’s counties were partially determined by number of cases per capita.

However as case counts have become less accurate – due to accessibility challenges, asymptomatic cases that do not get tested and unreported at-home test kit results – some health officials no longer view the case count as of high importance.

Peter Graven, a data scientist at Oregon Health and Science University and author of the influential COVID-19 statewide forecast used by the health authority, said the accuracy of the case count has little effect on his forecast.

“For my own model, I actually don’t look at cases at all,” Graven said.

Instead, he said one point of data to pay close attention to is hospitalizations.

Health officials reported on Friday that more than 1,000 individuals in the hospital with COVID-19. Hospitalizations are projected to peak around Feb. 1 with 1,550 patients.

“We’re well on the way to eclipsing last fall’s highs,” Sidelinger said, referring to the delta surge’s peak of nearly 1,200 hospitalizations.

State data currently shows about 94% of adult in-patient beds in hospitals are occupied.

On Thursday the Oregon Association of Hospitals & Health Systems described the strain on hospital staff and raised concerns about increasing cases in the coming weeks.

Several staffing agencies are contracted to help provide staffing to hospitals to increase capacity or fill in when employees are out sick. In addition, elective surgeries in many hospitals are being canceled to open up more beds.

Although hospitalizations are nearing record numbers in Oregon, health officials say the good news is that patients with COVID-19 are generally not as sick as the people battling the illness during the last wave.

In addition, Sidelinger said many Oregonians are taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, including getting vaccinated, limiting large gatherings and wearing a mask.

“I want to thank the vast majority of Oregonians who continue to take these steps to protect themselves, their loved ones in our communities,” Sidelinger said. “Your actions have helped keep the death rate from COVID among the lowest when we compare ourselves to other states.”