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Oregon could be “masks off” by March 20 as omicron wave falls fast

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Oregon health authorities say the incredibly rapid rise of the omicron variant to record numbers of cases is now being matched by its decline.

By GARY A. WARNER/Oregon Capital Bureau — The first day of spring could be a new beginning in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the likely lifting of indoor masking mandates, a state report forecast on Thursday.

The drop in daily hospitalizations from the omicron wave of the pandemic is accelerating and will pass below 400 per day by March 20, according to the latest pandemic forecast by the Oregon Health & Science University.

Gov. Kate Brown said Feb. 7 that she would lift the state’s indoor masking mandate when hospitalizations fell below 400 or no later than March 31. At the time, the OHSU forecast put the hospitalization goal at the far end of the timeline.

But the incredibly rapid rise of the omicron variant to record numbers of cases is now being matched by its decline. Hospitalizations could go below 100 per day by the first week of May, the OHSU forecast showed.

The number of people with COVID-19 in Oregon hospitals dropped from the omicron wave peak of 1,130 on Jan. 27 to 788 as of Thursday.

“Oregonians are doing the right thing, and it’s paying off,” said Dr. Peter Graven, OHSU’s lead forecaster.

Brown had not yet commented on the new forecast as of Thursday evening. The forecast was released late in the afternoon.

The OHSU report cautioned Oregonians to not get ahead of current public health recommendations. The new forecast date is still more than a month away, not today.

“It will be important to keep it up if we’re going to have a more manageable impact on our health system,” Graven said.

Dropping safeguards early could slow the decline of omicron and push the end of the mask mandate closer to the March 31 date.

“This doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods,” Graven said. “The number of cases are still significantly higher than they have been for most of the pandemic, but the decline over the past week provides relief for hospitals operating under severe strain.”

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington said Thursday that he would order indoor mask mandates dropped March 21, a day after Oregon’s projected date. Inslee said his order would include schools.

New Mexico dropped indoor mask mandates immediately on Thursday. California announced plans to move COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic status, meaning it would be handled as a major but manageable ongoing risk.

“We’re going to live with this,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told the New York Times on Thursday. “We’re not in denial of the hell that has been the last two years. This is not like World War II, where we can have a ticker-tape parade and announce the end.”

OHSU’s forecast showed a strong trend toward significantly lower infections, hospitalizations and eventually, deaths.

OHSU said Oregon masking rates have remained among the highest in the nation, with surveys showing roughly 80% of residents have continued to cover up indoors.

Oregon was one of the last states to drop outdoor mask mandates when Brown lifted the restriction in November.

Graven said the forecast was starting to show an erosion of state residents’ sustained high level of not gathering indoors with people outside of their households.

“Those rates have begun to tick up,” the OHSU statement that accompanied Thursday’s forecast said.

Graven cited Denmark as an example of where omicron seemed on the way out, only to rebound because of the public getting ahead of pandemic policies.

“They gave up on public health measures at what they thought was the peak — and it turned out not to be the peak and they had even more people hospitalized,” Graven said.

The highly contagious omicron variant was first confirmed in Oregon on Dec. 14.

The average peak of omicron in the 50 states was about a third higher than the per-capita peak in Oregon.

If Oregon had the national average of cases, the number of people with COVID-19 in state hospitals would have likely hit 1,540.

The actual peak of 1,130 on Jan. 27 fell just short of the pandemic hospital record of 1,178 on Sept. 1, 2021, the top of the severity of the delta variant wave.

The Oregon Capital Bureau in Salem is staffed by reporters from EO Media and Pamplin Media Group and provides state government and political news to their newspapers and media around Oregon, including Highway58Herald.org

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