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Omicron peak is over in Oregon, but the wave will take several more weeks to recede

State health officials are urging Oregonians to stick with the indoor masking rules until the planned March 31 end date in order to keep cases trending downward.

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon has passed the peak of the omicron variant surge, state health officials confirmed at a Friday news conference, but it will take several more weeks for daily case numbers and hospitalization rates to return to pre-omicron levels, and they urged Oregonians to stay vigilant in the meantime.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 947 statewide COVID hospitalizations as of Friday, according to state health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger — the first time in three weeks that the state has had fewer than 1,000 simultaneous hospitalizations.

The latest forecast from Oregon Health and Science University, released Thursday afternoon, projects that hospitalizations will continue to steadily recede in the coming weeks, reaching pre-omicron levels by the end of March. 

The forecasts fluctuated from week to week when the wave was still rising, but Dr. Peter Graven, director of OHSU's Office of Advanced Analytics, said the downslope of wave will likely be more consistent.

“It’s a lot easier to predict these declines," he said. "We see a lot of states ahead of us, a lot of countries ahead of us.”

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However, the projections would be thrown off if the state's mask mandate were lifted before the omicron wave has fully receded, he said, and hospitalizations would be pushed back up to peak omicron levels.

That's why state officials set March 31 as the target to lift the mask requirements for schools and indoor public spaces. The mandate will remain in place in health care settings.

“With masking and (other preventative) behaviors, we have essentially built a dam holding back a ‘reservoir’ of people who became susceptible to infection with omicron,” Graven said in a statement. “Right now there is a spillway that allows infections to get through at a slower rate. If we remove the dam now, it would flood. By contrast, if we let the water drain out slowly, we can safely remove the dam without flooding our hospitals with cases all at once.”

Oregon's daily cases peaked at 10,941 on Jan. 20 and have since receded to a 7-day average of 3,214 as of Thursday — a massive reduction, but still high by historical standards. Prior to omicron, the state's highest-ever single-day case tally was 3,207 on Aug. 27 at the peak of the delta variant wave.

Early forecasts predicted that the omicron wave would peak at more than 1,700 hospitalizations in Oregon, eclipsing the previous high point of 1,178 on Sept. 1 at the peak of the delta wave. Omicron ended up falling just short, peaking at 1,130 hospitalizations on Jan. 27, according to the OHSU forecast.

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Graven attributed that improved outcome to Oregon's high vaccination rates and compliance with mask rules. By March 31, case rates should be low enough for hospitals to be able to absorb any new cases once the rules are lifted, he said.

Individual schools and districts will need to work with local health authorities to make their own decisions on masking based on conditions on the ground after March 31, Sidelinger said.

Exposure and quarantine rules will remain in place for students, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said, but community transmission will be low enough by then to avoid a surge of new school absences.

“We would see more students both contracting COVID-19 from one another, or being exposed to it and having to miss school time (if the mask rules were lifted today), he said. "At the end of March, we should be in a very different place with the surge.”

In response to questions about whether masks impede students' ability to learn and build emotional skills, Gill replied that maintaining in-person classroom instruction is the most critical factor for a positive learning environment, and the mask rule helps facilitate that.

RELATED: Oregon school districts will set own mask rules once statewide mandate ends by March 31

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