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'This omicron surge is different than delta': Oregon hospital leaders give update on status of COVID in the state

The news conference on Thursday comes amid the ongoing omicron variant surge that is already putting a strain on hospitals and health care workers.

PORTLAND, Oregon — The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems (OAHHS) gave an update on ongoing COVID-19 challenges, hospital capacity and staff shortages during a news conference Thursday morning. It comes as the omicron variant continues to put a strain on the state's health care system.

"This omicron surge is different than delta," said Becky Hultberg, the president and CEO of OAHHS. "Delta hit Southern and Central Oregon harder than other regions of the state, but omicron is impacting all regions of the state and pretty much all hospitals of the state."

OAHHS is a nonprofit trade association that works with local government leaders, business coalitions and health care organizations.

Hultberg said there were currently 1,059 confirmed or suspected patients with COVID-19 in Oregon hospitals on Jan. 20. That's 74 more hospitalized patients than the previous day. 

The Oregon Health Department (OHA) released its daily COVID-19 report on Thursday afternoon, listing 10,034 new cases and 981 current hospitalizations (the OHA notes that the number of active hospital beds can fluctuate between report times).

At St. Charles in Bend, 63 patients were hospitalized because of the virus when KGW checked on Thursday. Four COVID patients are in the ICU. The system can handle 30 ICU patients, according to Dr. Doug Merrill, the chief medical officer.  

"Our staff, our nurses, our EDS workers, our docs are just really overwhelmed. And we’re all very anxious about what's ahead of us over the next month," he said.

According to the latest forecast from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), the number of Oregonians hospitalized with COVID-19 is expected to exceed the previous peak from the delta surge in September. OHSU forecasts a peak of about 1,650 people hospitalized by the end of January.

"The lack of available hospital beds is pushing the system everywhere to a breaking point," said Hultberg.

She said most hospitalized patients are not as sick as those who needed critical care during the delta surge. However, she said the shear number of people in the hospital has the potential to overwhelm the health care system. 

Hultberg also pointed to the added challenge of many hospitals being short on staff. 

“Hospitals are in a much worse position with staffing than in any prior point in the pandemic," she said. "After two years on this pandemic rollercoaster, many health care professionals just want off. Staff are physically and emotionally exhausted and dealing with challenging patients and conditions.”

Hultberg warned that the next couple of weeks are going to be tough.

"There is a war going on in our hospitals against the virus that isn’t visible to the public," Hultberg said. "For the next few weeks, we’re going to have one focus and that’s on ensuring that Oregon patients receive the best care possible during this surge. Hospitals need support so they can continue to deliver that care."