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'We are in crisis': Hospitals are already at capacity and delta spike is incoming

If the forecasted peak hits, Oregon will need 500 additional hospital beds by September and hospitals are already at capacity.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) released its latest COVID-19 forecast and it shows a grim outlook for the fifth wave of the coronavirus in Oregon. The charge is being led by the delta variant, a much more transmissible strain than the original COVID-19 strain that saw Oregonians homebound, under a mask mandate and an economic freeze.

Officials warn if action is not taken to flatten the curve now by implementing the use of masks and vaccines, social distancing and limiting social gatherings, we will reach herd immunity through infection instead of vaccination.

With 1.2 million people vulnerable to infection, hospitals will not be able to accommodate if everyone gets sick at once, which may be what Oregon is facing, according to Dr. Peter Graven, a data scientist at OHSU.

“This one [forecast] has some terrible and bad news,” Graven said. “This virus is going to want to get to herd immunity real quick, the key is to slow down now so we can get up our vaccination rates. We have about 1.2 million people who are still susceptible. And if they all got infected at once — which is kind of what we're looking at right now — we do not have room for the share that need the hospital."

Hospitals are already overwhelmed.

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Chief medical officer at OHSU Health, Dr. Renee Edwards, said the situation in hospitals across Oregon is, "frankly dire and projected to get significantly worse."

As of Aug. 8, 554 patients with COVID-19 were in hospitals and of the patients in ICU units, 30% are COVID-positive patients and 95% of those people are unvaccinated. That is the highest percentage of ICU beds taken up by COVID patients that Oregon has seen throughout the pandemic.

"The key resource that we’re worried about is the hospital, and in that, the ICU," Graven said. "We are again reaching levels we have never seen before. Percent of occupied beds — it’s streaking past the highest percentages we’ve had."

“We are in crisis,” Edwards said of the hospital capacity almost a month out from this wave’s peak, which is projected to hit Sept. 7.

Graven, who put the outlook projection together, believes that 1,000 patients will need hospital beds by then, beds Oregon’s hospitals simply do not have.

"The dominant strain in Oregon is the delta variant and it’s different," said Dr. Dawn Nolt, OHSU professor of pediatrics with the division of infections diseases at OHSU. "The good news is we know what needs to be done. Even though we’re all tired and we know that we can, and we must in order to restore the progress we made initially. Getting vaccinated is the single best thing a person can do to prevent serious illness or death."

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The delta variant is much more communicable, which is what is contributing to soaring numbers. It travels 2-3 times faster than the original strain. With the original strain of the virus, one person with COVID would infect, on average, three others. With the delta variant, one sick person will infect, on average, eight others. Doctors are seeing younger patients, mostly unvaccinated, experiencing more serious symptoms from COVID-19.

Nolt said as far as children too young to be vaccinated are concerned, it’s just a numbers game. The delta variant has been infecting children and as it spread, more children overall will contract the virus and more will be hospitalized. She said they haven’t seen a sharp rise in children experiencing more severe symptoms.

Graven said he believes that Oregon had reached a good immunity level for the original strain but the state will need stronger immunity to combat the delta transmission rate.

“We have no bumpers in place to slow this virus right now,” Edwards said. “We are on a trajectory that will overwhelm hospital capacity.”

Actions taken now will take weeks to flatten the curve but the hope is that through vaccination, mask-wearing, social distancing and limiting non-essential social interaction that the curve will spread slightly and will give Oregonians more time to get vaccinated and will overwhelm hospitals slightly less over a longer period of time instead of intensely and all at once.

Nolt and the other OHSU authorities had a simple request to help flatten the curve: “Please do not delay, please get yourself vaccinated.”