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The COVID-19 virus.

OPB

More than 6,000 Oregonians have died of COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, as of this week. But state health experts said there’s hope on the horizon as case numbers begin to plateau in some areas.

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At a press conference Friday, state health officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger told reporters the Portland metro area appears to have already reached its peak number of cases during the omicron wave, while other parts of the state continue to see increasing cases.

“We can see that light at the end of the tunnel,” Sidelinger said. “We’re closer to being able to be in a place where we’re living with this virus rather than combating it and fighting it at every turn.”

While cases might be plateauing, hospitalizations continue to rise sharply. The state is expected to reach a peak of 1,219 COVID-positive people in its hospitals by Feb. 6, according to the latest projections by Oregon Health and Science University. That’s a nearly 300 decrease from the previous week’s projections, which expected the peak to occur on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

Oregon had 1,130 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, an increase of 69 people from the day before. By comparison, Oregon had 1,200 people hospitalized with COVID-19 during the delta surge peak.

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“Our hospitals are reaching a breaking point,” Sidelinger said.

Still, no hospital systems in Oregon have resorted to using crisis standards of care — when resources are stretched so thin that health workers have to make tough decisions about who receives care first, prioritizing people who are less likely to die. Idaho has implemented those measures in some areas.

Sidelinger repeated messages that health officials have said time and again: Wear face masks, get vaccinated, and change your social plans to accommodate a virus surge during a pandemic.

“We are simply not yet at a point where we can consider relaxing these crucial protections,” Sidelinger said. “These measures will not be in place forever, but they are needed.”

The omicron variant appears to be infecting children under 18 more heavily than previous variants. Near the end of December, pediatric cases hovered just over 1,000. They jumped to 13,000 by Jan. 9. Sidelinger said there are several factors accounting for that increase, including the age limit for COVID-19 vaccines, which currently stands at 5 years old.

Hospitalizations, too, are increasing, though they remain rare overall for children.

Sidelinger said state health officials expect to get more information and data on a potential vaccine for young children in the coming months. When that comes, it’ll likely be administered by pediatric care workers and primary care providers.

“We may have those vaccines available in pharmacies and other locations where we have providers who are comfortable vaccinating younger children,” Sidelinger said.

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“There’s a lot of speculation about whether we’re at or near the peak in cases right now,” Tri-county lead health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said. “We might be, but it’s really hard to say, and we’re frankly still really concerned about hospitals.”