Oregon health officials on Wednesday urged Oregonians in the 21 counties with high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to mask up, warning that the state’s hospital system is again under extreme strain.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are significantly lower than at the peaks of past surges. But a combination of staff shortages due to burnout and summer vacations; a high volume of patients who delayed care for other conditions earlier in the pandemic, and elevated coronavirus infections likely due to the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant has substantially reduced hospital systems’ capacity to care for current patients.
“No area of the state is spared,” Oregon Health Authority epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said during a news briefing Wednesday.
The state reported 424 people hospitalized with COVID-19 Wednesday, down from 458 one week ago. The peak of the current surge was expected to arrive last Tuesday, at 479 occupied beds, according to an Oregon Health & Sciences University forecast.
In light of the strain on Oregon’s hospital system, Sidelinger asked Oregonians to wear masks in indoor public spaces, particularly those in counties with high levels of spread, those at high risk of severe disease or those living with others at high risk.
Using some of the strongest language during this surge, Sidelinger also suggested people reconsider summer plans to protect themselves and others during what he called “this extremely challenging time.”
Central Oregon hospitals have been particularly hard-hit, Sidelinger said, citing the St. Charles Health System in Bend, in particular.
Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 21 have “high” levels of community spread, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention. That designation is based on hospitalizations, hospital admissions and new case numbers. They include the three Portland-area counties.
Everyone in those counties should be wearing a mask when in an indoor public space, Sidelinger said.
Despite the warnings, Sidelinger said he expects hospitalizations to plateau over the coming days or week before declining. And mask mandates will remain a local, not a state-level, decision.