How Bad Will Oregon’s Outbreak Get? It Depends on Which Experts You Ask.

Two reliable studies show divergent COVID-19 outcomes in Oregon.

Pioneer Courthouse Square on March 22, 2020. (Aaron Wessling)

Last week, the Oregon Health Authority gave the state some guardedly good news about its COVID-19 prospects.

Employing new models from the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Wash., state health officials released new projections for how many Oregonians would contract the novel coronavirus.

If everyone engages in the aggressive social distancing that Gov. Kate Brown has mandated, the modeling says, approximately 1,000 people in the state will get COVID-19 between now and May 8. Only a "minimal" number will need in-patient care—so few that the state didn't even assign an approximate number. Even fewer are expected to die.

That description fits into a narrative gaining traction about COVID-19 in Oregon: that the social distancing measures enacted last week arrived soon enough to mitigate COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths before they could grow exponentially, as they have in New York City.

That's a useful story to persuade people to stay indoors a little longer. It's also the most optimistic projection.

A University of Washington study predicts under those same circumstances that 566 Oregonians will die from the novel coronavirus, 1,151 will need hospital beds, and 171 will need intensive care at peak.

GRIM FORECAST: Modeling by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates Oregon will need, at the virus’s peak, 1,151 beds for COVID-19 patients, 171 intensive care beds, and 137 respirators. UW projects 566 deaths statewide from COVID-19, with the number of deaths per day peaking at 11 on April 30.

Those numbers are similar to—and in some ways grimmer than—what OHA has described as worst-case scenario projections, in which residents practice "business as usual," i.e., all businesses remain open and people do not practice any form of social distancing. (In that scenario, approximately 1,100 people will need hospital care, and 250 of them will need intensive care. Some of those intensive care patients would die.)

Both models are from reputable and serious labs with experience tracking epidemics. And the divergent numbers don't differ on whether Brown's social distancing order is helping—it is. But the seeds for Oregon's case count and deaths were planted in the weeks leading up to Brown's stay-home order.

And these models offer different appraisals of how dire the situation has already become. And that matters because Oregonians need to have accurate expectations, or risk feeling misled when the full effect of the disease hits.

"[The virus] can behave in ways that we didn't anticipate, and the numbers can increase rather steeply," Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's epidemiologist, said during a media call March 26 about the state's new modeling. "That does not mean the shortage here isn't critical… These measures can be put in place, but they really only work if people do their part."

The two below datasets show how the best-case-scenario from the University of Washington is grimmer than the worst-case-scenario for the modeling created for the Oregon Health Authority, which forecasts a more optimistic outcome.

Best-case-scenario for Oregon, based on disease modeling from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation:

· 1,151 acute beds needed

· 177 intensive care beds needed

· 566 deaths

Worst-case-scenario for Oregon, based on the Institute for Disease Modeling in Belleveue, Wash., made for the Oregon Health Authority:

· 850 acute beds needed

· 250 intensive care beds needed

· 364 deaths

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