Oregon could fall below 400 patients with COVID-19 in state hospitals within days, but Gov. Kate Brown has not announced a change to the March 12 date for lifting indoor mask requirements.
The Oregon Health Authority reported Thursday, March 3, that 404 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals in the state.
Oregon Health & Science University forecasts the number will drop to 300 by March 18.
The positive test rate also fell to 4.5% Thursday, below the 5% mark that OHA has said throughout the pandemic was the level at which the spread of infections is manageable.
As of Thursday evening, Brown had not commented on how the new numbers would affect plans to lift the mask mandate at one minute before midnight March 12. Oregon set the date in tandem with California and Washington.
That date may now be as much as a week beyond the original threshold Brown announced Feb. 7, when she said Oregon would lift its indoor mask mandate on March 31 or when hospitalizations fell below 400 per day, whichever came first. At the time, projections put the caseload and date at about the same time.
Brown also announced she would lift the pandemic state of emergency that has been in place since March 2020.
To the surprise of forecasters, the drop-off in hospitalizations has accelerated, moving the threshold earlier with each weekly forecast.
In response, the masks-off date moved to March 19. With new data, Brown announced Monday that the three West Coast states would drop their indoor mask mandates simultaneously at 11:59 p.m. March 11.
Brown's office did not immediately respond to a question on how the new OHSU forecast, released Thursday afternoon, would impact the state's timeline.
Peter Graven, director of the OHSU Office of Advanced Analytics, said that barring a new variant, the downward trend will continue.
Graven said OHSU calculates that fewer than 13% of Oregon residents have not been vaccinated, exposed to the virus or both. Vaccines and infections provide levels of immunity as the omicron variant seeks to spread.
"There aren't enough susceptible people in Oregon right now to generate another surge in hospitalizations," he said.
Graven said OHSU now estimates roughly two-thirds of Oregon's population of 4.24 million has been infected at some point during the two-year pandemic. The largest number of infections came during the omicron wave that was first reported in Oregon on Dec. 14 and peaked in January.
The number of infections soared to record levels and more breakthrough cases of infections among people who were vaccinated were reported.
OHA reported that its revised statistics show there were 9,636 new infections on Jan. 8, the highest single day total during the pandemic.
The omicron variant spread much wider than any earlier version of COVID-19, but was less virulent.
However, the most severe outcomes — hospitalization and death — came amid the shrinking population of those who were neither vaccinated nor exposed to the virus earlier.
"We've created a large buffer of people who have already had it," Graven said.
While the peak of the omicron surge approached 10,000 new infections in early January, it never reached the delta variant's number of severe cases.
Hospitalizations peaked on Jan. 27 at 1,130 people in hospitals who tested positive for COVID-19.
In comparison, the delta wave peaked at 2,626 cases on Aug. 16, but hospitalizations reached 1,178 daily hospitalizations on Sept. 1 — still the record for the pandemic in Oregon.