PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — It has been a month since Oregon lifted statewide coronavirus-related restrictions, but this week Gov. Kate Brown has announced the reimplementation of mask requirements in schools and state agency buildings.
The return of some mask mandates in Oregon follows a surge in COVID-19 cases — that officials warn may significantly worsen over the next month — and updated masking guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The science and data are clear: the Delta variant is spreading in our communities and is more contagious,” Brown said Friday. “This mask requirement will protect Oregonians, many of whom have been on the frontlines of the pandemic and who continue to provide essential services to Oregonians."
The latest mandate occurred Friday, when Gov. Brown announced new mask guidance for Executive Branch state agencies. The new guidance requires all state employees, visitors or customers — regardless of vaccination status — in any indoor state agency space to wear face coverings. The mandate is effective immediately.
As cases continue to increase across the country, the CDC announced updated masking guidelines on Tuesday, recommending that people — vaccinated or not — return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant is rampant.
The Oregon Health Authority followed suit in urging people to wear mask in indoor public spaces, but stopped short of reinstating an indoor mask mandate.
The CDC also recommended masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors inside of schools, regardless of vaccination status.
On Thursday Brown announced that the state of Oregon will require students and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors this fall.
In a statement from the Oregon Department of Education, officials say they are working to create a rule requiring face coverings in all indoor school settings — both public and private — for all individuals 2 and older. This includes students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors.
The rule will include provisions for eating, drinking, playing a musical instrument that requires using the mouth and certain sports — including swimming, gymnastics and wrestling.
Officials say the rule will take effect upon adoption, but the exact date is unclear.
But as masks are reimplemented in some places, Oregon health officials warned Friday the predicted daily COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations in August show a sharp increase.
Based on the Oregon Health Authority's newest COVID-19 modeling, at the current level of transmission, over the next two weeks daily cases would continue to rapidly increase to an estimated 1,170 cases and 95 new hospitalizations per day. The average amount of cases per day last week was 443 and an average of about 21 new daily hospitalizations, based on data from the health authority.
“I'm extremely concerned about the situation right now, but extremely grateful that we have other tools in this fight that we didn’t have six month ago,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist and health officer. “The vaccines that we currently have available to us in Oregon and across the United States are highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 – but that depends on people being vaccinated.”
Currently, about 29% of adults in Oregon remain unvaccinated. Last month, the health authority reported that 92% of coronavirus cases in June and 94% of coronavirus deaths occurred in unvaccinated Oregonians.
“We know that people would like to move on from COVID-19 – but unfortunately it is here and it is a much more formidable foe right now than it has been for the last year and a half,” Sidelinger said. “But the tools that we have are also more formidable, so lets use them.”
The impacts of the virus on unvaccinated people are apparent when looking at high-infection rates in counties with low-vaccination rates.
Last week, in rural Umatilla County where 43% of adults are partially or fully vaccinated, the areas coronavirus-test positivity rate surpassed 14%. On Friday health officials reported that the Pendleton Whisky Music Fest, which was held in Umatilla County on July 10, was the site of an outbreak — so far, 58 people who attended the event have tested positive for COVID-19.
Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.