A person in a grey sweatshirt getting vaccinated by a nurse
The Oregon Health Authority wants to get 1 million Oregonians boosted by the end of January. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

Oregon has three weeks before it will be hit with the largest surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to modeling from the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) released Friday.

“We are literally in a race against the clock,” Governor Kate Brown said during a press conference about the latest study Friday.

The expected surge is due to the new Omicron variant, which is more contagious than the Delta variant according to OHSU lead data scientist Peter Graven who authored the report. The first cases of Omicron in Oregon were identified in Multnomah and Washington Counties on December 13.

The OHSU model shows that COVID cases will ramp up significantly in mid-January, reaching a peak of about 3,000 hospitalizations in early February. Oregon has approximately 700 ICU beds and 4,000 non-ICU beds in the state, both of which are over 90 percent full as of December 17. Oregon’s current hospitalization record during the pandemic was 1,187 people as of September 1, 2021.

Given the way the Omicron variant has already spread through other countries like Denmark and the United Kingdom, Oregon health officials believe the surge is inevitable and are focused on reducing its severity by urging one million Oregonians to get their booster shots by the end of January.

People who have received two doses of a vaccine should consider themselves to be 50 percent immune to the Omicron variant, according to Graven. Recent studies have shown that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is less effective against the Omicron variant than Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. People who have received their booster shots or third doses of a vaccine are more protected against the Omicron variant and severe illness if they do experience a breakthrough infection.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has already secured an increase in booster shot supplies from the federal government and will open three new high-capacity vaccination sites throughout the state soon. The largest barrier to distributing booster shots to Oregonians is a lack of healthcare workers available to administer the shots.

“I know there are many people today who want a booster and are frustrated that they have to wait a week or more for a nearby appointment,” said OHA director Patrick Allen. “These local shortages are not due to a lack of vaccines, they are due to a lack of staffing and a healthcare system still reeling from Delta’s punch.”

The OHA has started bringing out-of-state healthcare workers into Oregon to help the state’s overburdened healthcare system. The state health authority will also create a guide for hospitals and healthcare workers on how to prioritize care for COVID patients if the hospitals become too crowded from the Omicron surge to care for everyone.

OHA said those most at risk of severe illness, like seniors in community care facilities and people of color who have historically had less access to public health services, will be prioritized to receive booster shots via mobile vaccine clinics and community health partnerships.

According to Graven, early data on the Omicron variant shows that while it is highly transmissible, the effects of the illness are less severe. However, even with fewer severe effects, the sheer volume of expected COVID cases will still result in an increase in hospitalizations.

Graven acknowledged that his modeling for the coming surge may be less accurate because there is still minimal information available about the Omicron variant. However, Graven said his modeling follows the parameters set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and uses the most recently available data from other countries experiencing an Omicron surge.

People looking for a vaccine or booster appointment can go to getvaccinated.oregon.gov to find an appointment near them.