Oregon hospitalizations for COVID-19 will peak at a much lower level than expected as state officials see the steep spike driven by the omicron variant showing strong signs of waning.

Oregon is seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” with infection rates dropping in Portland and other areas of the state.

“The potential beginning of a decrease is real,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s health officer and top infectious disease expert, told reporters Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

The health authority reported 7,222 new COVID-19 cases, down 649 cases from Thursday’s report. The state reported 19 new deaths on Friday.

Hospitals reported 1,125 patients with COVID-19, five less than Thursday. There are 176 COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds, up seven from the day before.

Oregon Health & Science University issued a new forecast Friday showing that hospitalizations would peak lower but later than projections last week.

Hospital patients with COVID-19 will likely top out at 1,200 on Feb. 6, according to the forecast presented by Dr. Peter Graven, the OHSU top statistical analyst.

That’s far below the 3,000 cases OHSU forecast at one point early in the year, and below the 1,533 projected last week. The lower plateau has pushed the peak five days beyond the Feb. 1 mark forecast last week.

The current numbers have hospitals “near the breaking point,” Sidelinger said.

Hospital beds will be in short supply for weeks as each point on the back side of the spike is equally dangerous as the same levels going up.

“Hospitals have very little space right now to handle new cases of COVID-19 on top of what they’re already dealing with,” Graven said in the OHSU forecast. “Our hospitals and health care workers remain under severe strain.”

Sidelinger said the Portland metro area was ahead of much of the rest of the state in a drop in infections because it was hit earlier in the omicron wave and also has a very high level of vaccination.

But the drop would eventually extend to the whole state over the next few weeks. He said it would likely hold despite Oregon neighboring Idaho, which is currently going through a belated spike in cases. But Oregon officials will monitor the situation in its neighboring state.

“The virus doesn’t care about borders,” Sidelinger said.

The early signs of a drop in COVID-19 infections did not mean Oregon would soon change plans on vaccination and mask mandates.

Sidelinger said the state would file notices with the Secretary of State on Friday and Monday to make certain rules and restrictions on mask-wearing and vaccination requirements for health and educational staff stay in place.

The rules were originally introduced on an emergency temporary basis, which can remain in force for a maximum of 180 days. Many of the rules hit the mark on Friday.

Sidelinger said the permanent rules would allow the measures to continue beyond the deadline. The move was more about relieving the state of the need to constantly renew the safeguards.

But Sidelinger said Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority had no intention of making the rules stretch indefinitely into the future.

“These measures will not be in place forever,” he said. “But they are needed now.”

Sidelinger echoed the opinion of federal health experts who earlier this week said the nation should shift its goal from eradicating COVID-19 to bringing it to an endemic stage where it would recur like the seasonal flu, but not cause major illness and death.

“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,” Sidelinger said.

A unique aspect of the omicron variant is that it has infected children more frequently than earlier waves of the pandemic.

Pediatric cases in Oregon rose from under 1,000 near the end of the year to 13,000 on Jan. 9.

There is currently no COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 and younger.

Though hospitals are “at a breaking point,” Sidelinger said no medical centers have had to resort to the emergency standards of care the state announced earlier this month.

The standards are a guide for doctors on how to triage patients when resources are stretched beyond capacity.

Sidelinger said health officials are waiting for more signals in coming weeks that the drop in cases and hospitalizations continues. That could lead to the first extended respite from the pandemic since last June before the delta wave arrived in Oregon.

“I hope we can enjoy a spring and a summer where it is much more normal, where it’s much more like 2019 and not like 2020 or 2021,” Sidelinger said.