By GARY A. WARNER 

Oregon Capital Bureau

SALEM --  Oregon is in the midst of a sixth wave of COVID-19 infections as the world marks the two-year  anniversary of the pandemic on Friday.  

Thursday's report by the Oregon Health Authority recorded 2,948 new cases and 15 deaths.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 climbed to 440 people, up 21 from Wednesday. Oregon has recorded 421,263 infections and 5,655 deaths from COVID-19, which was first  reported in China two years ago Friday. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  reported 488,000 new cases nationwide, a new record. The World Health Organization said new  infections were a "tsunami" sweeping the globe.  

The spike is being driven by the high-speed spread of the omicron variant, paired with a  stubbornly slow decline of the delta variant that peaked in September.  

Omicron now accounts for a majority of new cases in the United States, according to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases are expected to continue to rise in Oregon, with Thursday's positive test rate at 15%,  which is three times the standard that OHA says is a manageable level of spread.  

The health authority said Thursday it had ordered 12 million at-home antigen rapid test kits,  which can show results in 15 minutes. Local public health agencies and partner organizations  will distribute the tests free of charge. The first kits should arrive in Oregon next week.  “Oregon learned during the Delta surge that we must be prepared for the unpredictable — we  knew we had to be ready for future variants so we could continue to protect the most vulnerable  in our communities while keeping our schools, businesses and communities open,” Gov. Kate  Brown said in a statement.  

Pharmacies around the state have reported selling all available kits and mail orders are backlogged into next month.  

Scientists studying the omicron strain say it is the most contagious version of COVID-19 since  the start of the pandemic. While early reports show individual cases are less likely to result in  hospitalization or death, the sheer number of new cases will swamp hospitals and emergency  responders. 

Omicron is more likely to cause "breakthrough" cases in vaccinated people, the CDC has  reported. But people who have received a booster shot to go along with earlier vaccination have  significantly lower chances of experiencing severe illness or death.  

Oregon Health & Science University has projected that the omicron spike will peak in Oregon  around Feb. 9. The OHSU forecast last week lowered the peak number of hospitalizations in  Oregon from 3,000 to about 1,200, near the level seen when delta peaked in early September.  A new forecast expected Thursday has now been delayed until Friday, OHSU officials said.  

Thursday's report said the 7-day daily average of new cases in Oregon rose to 1,532. The per capita rate is 251.3 cases per 100,000.  

Deschutes County continues to be the state's leading COVID-19 hot spot, with the top infection rate of any county when adjusted for population. Deschutes County has a weekly average of  565.4 cases per 100,000 residents. Sparsely populated Grant County has a weekly average of  546.8 cases. Umatilla County has the third highest average, at just over 402 cases. Crook  County is fourth with an average of 337 cases, followed by Jefferson County at 331.9 cases per  100,000.  Sherman County, with fewer than 2,000 residents, has the highest positive test rate at 33.3%,  based on a rise from zero to three cases. Umatilla County has the second highest positive test  rate at 29.1%, followed by Deschutes at 22.7%, Union at 21.7%, and Tillamook at 19.8%  

The seven-day average of new infections in the U.S. topped 267,000 on Wednesday, a new  record.  Despite skyrocketing case reports, the state is stepping into a three-day information void. The  Oregon Health Authority previously announced that it would not release daily COVID-19 reports  from Friday through Sunday in observance of the New Year's Day holiday.  

Two-year mark of pandemic  Uncertainty about the virus has been a hallmark of the pandemic, which officially began two  years ago today.  

The World Health Organization received a report of a cluster of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan,  a metropolitan area of 11 million residents in the center of China. All the initial cases were  connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city.  

7-dayThe report on the last day of 2019 is the reason for the number in COVID-19. Chinese  researchers reported to WHO on Jan. 7 that the illnesses were caused by a "novel coronavirus,"  unseen before.

WHO issued a public report on Jan. 10. The next day, Thailand reported a case. Japan was next  on Jan. 15.  The Centers for Disease Control confirmed on Jan. 20 that the virus was found in Washington  State.  

The first case in Oregon was confirmed Feb. 28. The next day, Feb. 29, Washington State  reported the first death in the United States from COVID-19.  WHO declared a pandemic — a contagious disease found on multiple continents — on March  11.  

A 70-year-old man was Oregon's first death on March 15 at the Portland Veterans' Affairs  Medical Center.  By the end of the year, over 300,000 Americans had died from the virus. The first vaccine  became publicly available on Dec. 14. Hope that the worst of the crisis had passed marked the  beginning of 2021.  

The optimism was premature. Today, more than 5.4 million have died worldwide, including over  824,000 in the United States, the most of any country in the world. 

Oregon has had among the lowest infection and death rates of the 50 states, but still registered  5,640 deaths as of Thursday morning.  

While most poor countries in the world had little if any vaccine supply, the United States had a  surplus as a significant minority of Americans refused vaccination. 

The past 24 months have tempered expectations of solving the pandemic. Restrictions on  gatherings and mandatory face mask edicts led to a decline in cases in summer 2020, giving  hope that the virus might be controlled while scientists worked on vaccines.  

By that autumn, hospitalizations and deaths began to soar, peaking in December just as the first  vaccines were released to the public. Despite hesitancy towards the vaccines, the shrinking numbers of cases led to a lifting of most pandemic  restrictions in Oregon at the end of June.  

But July brought a burst of new infections, severe cases and deaths caused by the delta variant. September set a new record of COVID-19 deaths in the state. 

The spike peaked on Labor Day  weekend and began a stubbornly slow decline.  In October, OHSU researchers said it was possible that the state would drop to negligible levels of severe cases by early November as a majority of the state was either vaccinated or had immunity through exposure to the virus.

The possibility of herd immunity — where the virus was starved of people it could infect — was  possible.  But pandemic "fatigue" led to people gathering more often with more people and not always  following safeguards. 

Research also showed the vaccine's effectiveness had begun to wane,  though vaccinated people had just a 1% chance of dying if they contracted a  breakthrough case of COVID-19. Health officials said vaccinated people needed a third booster  shot to have full protection.  

As delta cases dropped off, the new omicron variant was reported in southern Africa on Nov. 22,  with the first case in the United States reported in San Francisco on Dec. 1. Oregon reported its  first cases on Dec. 13.  

The tenacious nature of the virus, combined with the political fracture that has scrambled public  health policy, has ended talk of eradicating COVID-19.  

The latest model follows the path of the 1918-19 "Spanish flu" pandemic. Zero cases isn't the  goal. Instead, scientists says a series of variants that eventually produces a widespread but far  less virulent form of the original virus make life with COVID-19 manageable.  

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top communicable disease expert, said on Thursday that  COVID-19 “will not be eradicated and very likely would not be eliminated." 

But it was possible that as early as the first months of 2022, it could be reduced to a controllable  level "that does not disrupt society, does not disrupt the economy.”

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