PORTLAND, Ore — Amid surging cases of COVID-19, public health leaders from Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties said most people in the metro area will come into contact the omicron variant of the coronavirus over the next few weeks, and people should expect disruptions in their day-to-day lives because of it.
"Most of us will encounter omicron, and most of us will have mild symptoms," said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the lead health officer for the tri-county region. "Some of us, relatively few of us, may get severe disease from omicron. The way the virus spreads so quickly means that it can very easily find the people most at risk."
While the percentage of patients who need hospital care might be relatively small compared to the number of cases, those patients will all need care at the same time, potentially overloading Oregon's already fragile health care systems. Dr. Vines said an emergency department in Portland recently reached full capacity and ran out of room, but she did not say which hospital.
Leaders acknowledged testing is difficult to come by but implored people not to go to an emergency room unless they actually require emergency care.
In its daily update Thursday, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported 7,615 new COVID-19 cases, setting yet another record for the highest number cases in a single day, though health officials said that is a significant undercount because of the lack of available testing and missing results from at-home tests that aren't reported to the state. The previous record was 6,203 cases which was set on Wednesday after another record-breaking day the day before. There are 588 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across Oregon, up from 523 reported Wednesday. Test positivity rates also rose from 20.6% to 23.3%, and OHA reported nine new deaths.
Health leaders said COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are the safest and best way to prevent severe illness. Still, the virus is going to move very quickly through the community, Dr. Vines said, and despite seemingly causing more mild illness, it will be disruptive. Hospitals, child care, businesses and public services could be affected by waves of sick employees unable to come to work.
Despite that, health officials said they do not expect county leaders to implement any shutdowns or new capacity restrictions.
County health agencies are also largely abandoning case investigation and contact tracing because the speed at which the omicron variant spreads made those tools like "bringing a snow shovel to a tornado," according to Clackamas County Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present. People who test positive should assume it's the omicron variant, Present said, and shouldn't expect to hear from public health departments like patients might have in the past.
Officials encouraged people, especially those with risk factors for severe illness, to limit their contacts, not to attend any unnecessary gatherings and wear the best mask possible, ensuring it is fitted correctly — and ask others around them to do the same.