OREGON, USA — The OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics predicts COVID cases could increase in the weeks following Oregon's dropped mask mandate, but said outcomes are uncertain.
For more than a hundred weeks, Dr. Peter Graven has helped lead the effort in creating OHSU's COVID forecast for Oregon.
"I love hard problems, and this has been the hardest one," Graven said.
Graven compiles and analyzes data from around the state, country and world to help predict what the COVID outlook is in Oregon. He said he is now watching for changes after Oregon's indoor mask mandate ended last week.
"So far we're still on the same path," Graven said. "Cases are amongst the lowest we've seen."
The state reported on Tuesday that fewer than 200 COVID patients are in the hospital, which is a key metric in deciding COVID restrictions.
"When [hospitalizations] start ticking up, we don't get to play games with whether we want to wear a mask or not," Graven explained. "We will run out of beds."
Graven added it is too soon to know if there will be a significant spike in cases and hospitalizations now that masks are not required.
"There would be a lag, so I'm expecting there will be some effect," he said.
One concern is the BA.2 variant of COVID's omicron strain. It is the dominant strain in Europe right now, but Graven said so far, data indicate BA.2 is not causing significant problems.
"We're not done with the pandemic," said Teresa Everson, deputy health officer for the Multnomah County Health Department.
Everson said BA.2 is on the radar, but not causing local issues yet.
"In areas where we have a lot of immunity, both from vaccination and from the omicron surge, they are not really seeing much of an impact from BA.2," she told KGW last week.
"Our immunity right now is really high, and that will wane over time," Graven added. "Then we may see infections pick up again."
The natural spread of the virus could result in an ebb-and-flow approach of renewed COVID restrictions and masking requirements as needed, he said.
"As those waves come and go, it does mean that you open up for periods, and it may mean you have to slow it down again," Graven said. "It's a strategy we have to be prepared for."
Experts said right now, it appears most people are safe from severe illness if they are vaccinated. The bigger concern as masks become optional is for people who are immunocompromised.
"COVID's not going away completely," Graven said.