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Oregon will lift mask mandate March 11

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Students wear masks as they file into Sage Elementary School on the first day back to school in Redmond.Dean Guernsey/The Bulletin Dean Guernsey/The Bulletin

 

Plummeting COVID-19 hospitalizations have moved up the day that indoor masks will no longer be mandatory to March 11, Gov. Kate Brown said Monday.

Oregon, California and Washington issued simultaneous announcements on Monday morning that they would unmask at the same time – a major change in the pandemic for 51 million people in states along the Pacific Ocean between Canada and Mexico.

The announcement came on the two-year anniversary of the first reported case of COVID-19 in Oregon.

 

“As has been made clear time and again over the last two years, COVID-19 does not stop at state borders or county lines,” Brown said in a statement. “On the West Coast, our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic.”

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said the new policy included schools. Both Brown and Gill underlined that each school district could decide to retain masks and individual students could still wear masks.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said state health experts did not believe the move would lead to the kind of explosive growth of cases that greeted Oregon’s last attempt to lift most safeguards.

In June 2021, Brown announced that the state had neared its goal of having 70% of all residents vaccinated. She lifted restrictions that had been in place for much of the time since Oregon declared a state of emergency in March 2020.

The overall state vaccination rate hid the reality that that inoculations were not uniform among Oregon’s 36 counties. While the Portland metro area and other parts of the Willamette Valley exceeded the state average, more than half of residents were unvaccinated in several counties.

In July, the delta variant arrived in Oregon and sickened and killed a record number of people who were not vaccinated. The variant peaked over the Labor Day weekend, but September set a single-month pandemic record of 918 deaths.

As delta receded, omicron appeared. Four or more times more contagious than delta, it also was able to infect vaccinated people. However, less than 3% of breakthrough cases required hospitalization, while less than .05% caused death. But the sheer volume of cases, along with a still large population of unvaccinated people, filled up hospitals.

 

Today, 69% of all residents are fully vaccinated – above the national average of 65%. But eight Oregon counties have 50% or less of resident vaccinated – with Lake County’s 39% the lowest of the 36 counties.

The move by the three states comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week called for new guidelines to determine risk.

It would allow for the loosening of restrictions for 70% of the country’s population where coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals.

However, the map released by the CDC showed much of eastern, central and southwestern Oregon remained in the 30% of population areas that remain at high risk.

The order from the three governors will affect over 51.2 million people from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, about 15% of the national population.

There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued similar statements Monday morning with the same date and time for dropping indoor mask mandates.

The new date is the second time in two weeks that health officials have moved up the date for lifting mask mandates.

Brown had originally said that the mask mandate would end March 31, about when Oregon Health & Science University projected the state would drop below 400 daily patients in hospitals who were positive for COVID-19.

 

The decline in omicron-related severe cases accelerated and the date was moved last week to March 19. But on Thursday, OHSU issued a forecast showing Oregon would dip below the 400-mark by March 11. The next OHSU forecast is due Thursday.

OHA said the lifting of the mask mandate did not include changes to federal and state rules on masks in health care settings, airline flights, public transit, and other specialized setting. Updates will be provided in coming days and weeks.

Brown’s statement on Monday did not change her plan to lift the state of emergency earlier than April 1, the date she announced last week. The emergency rules gave Brown wide powers to set public policy during the crisis, including the closing and reopening of in-person classroom instruction, business hours, mask usage and limits on event sizes.

The three West Coast states have sought to coordinate on COVID-19 response throughout the pandemic, though they have gone their own way at times, such as the vaccine priority list in early 2021. Brown said the governors believed the mask mandate change was best done at the same time for the stretch from the Mexican border to the Canadian border.

“Our communities and economies are linked,” Brown said.

Brown underlined that the move did not mean the pandemic was burning out or nearly over.

“We will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic,” she said. “As we learn to live with this virus, we must remain vigilant to protect each other and prevent disruption to our schools, businesses, and communities – with a focus on protecting our most vulnerable and the people and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

Oregon officials say they are confident that the move will not replicate the premature lifting of safeguards in July 2021 that came almost simultaneously with the arrival of the virulent delta variant that caused a record 918 deaths in September. Critics said at that time that lifting the ban statewide did not take into effect the wide differences in vaccination rates and prior COVID-19 exposure.

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