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Indoor masks gone by March 31st?

PORTLAND: Oregon will remove general mask requirements for indoor public places no later than March 31, state health officials announced last week.

By late March, health scientists expect that about 400 or fewer Oregonians would be hospitalized with COVID-19, the level of hospitalizations the state experienced before the Omicron variant began to spread. Mask requirements for schools will be lifted on March 31.

However, state health officials say Oregon needs to keep mask requirements in place for now as COVID-19 hospitalizations crest and Oregon’s health care system strains to treat high numbers of severely ill patients.

Today, health officials at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) filed a new rule with the Oregon Secretary of State to require people to wear masks while indoors in public places. The new rule replaces a temporary rule that expires Feb. 8. The filing was the only way health officials could extend the current temporary mask rule past its expiration date and until mask rules would no longer be needed to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – to save lives and prevent the Omicron crisis from further overwhelming Oregon’s health care system.

The rule, as well as the hearing officer report for the public hearing and a written comment period, can be found here.

Oregon has the third lowest cumulative COVID-19 case rate in the nation and the seventh lowest COVID-19 death rate since the start of the pandemic. In their filing with the Secretary of State, Oregon health officials said scientific research has shown that masks protect people from COVID-19. Oregon’s comparatively strong compliance with mask rules and its high vaccination and booster rates have blunted the Omicron surge and – for now – prevented Oregon’s hospitals from breaking under potentially hundreds of more hospitalizations they could have faced so far. According to data compiled by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), more than 8 in 10 Oregonians continue to report wearing masks in public settings.

To date, COVID-19 hospitalizations have not topped the 1,178 high point of the Delta surge, despite initial projections that warned Omicron hospitalizations could more than double Delta’s zenith. If Oregon had the same per-capita hospitalization rate as the national average, Oregon would have had seen a high of 1,543 hospitalizations at this time, according to OHSU’s data.

“The evidence from Oregon and around the country is clear: masks save lives by slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dean Sidelinger, M.D., health officer and state epidemiologist. “We should see COVID-19 hospitalizations drop by the end of March because so many Oregonians are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect themselves and each other, such as getting a booster shot or vaccinating their children. At that point, it will be safer to lift mask requirements.”

Sidelinger provides additional comments in a video that can be found here.

Over the past week, the average number of newly diagnosed cases has dropped about 40% in Oregon. At the same time, hospitalizations, which are a lagging indicator, have stubbornly remained above 1,000 people per day. As of today, Oregon’s seven-day total in COVID-19 hospitalizations inched down another 1%, with 1,072 people reported hospitalized with COVID-19. More than 9 in 10 intensive care unit (ICU) and acute care beds are currently occupied by a patient in Oregon hospitals, and continuing to strain nurses, doctors and other medical staff.

Oregon’s high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations comes at a time when state health officials have mobilized an unprecedented response to prevent Oregon’s health care system from buckling. The Oregon National Guard has mobilized 1,300 Reserve National Guard members to help staff hospitals. The state has contracted to bring in more than 1,179 nurses and other medical staff from out of state to help treat the high numbers of severely ill patients.

Current models show hospitalizations peaking at 1,169 and then beginning to decline throughout February and March as infections slow. However, health officials cautioned that the state’s emergence from the Omicron surge depends on Oregonians sustaining effective prevention measures in coming weeks. Sidelinger said, “We’re likely to see as many cases on the way down from the Omicron peak as we saw on the way up. That means we need to keep taking steps to prevent more hospitalizations and deaths.”

State health officials said they would consider lifting the general indoor mask requirement earlier than March 31, if hospitalizations decline to the levels projected by the end of March sooner than expected.

In the meantime, health experts strongly recommend high-risk individuals continue wearing masks in indoor public settings after mask requirements are lifted, including people who are:

• Unvaccinated

• Immunocompromised

• At high risk of COVID-19 hospitalizations, including those with underlying health conditions and those 65 and older

• Living with people at high risk

Once requirements are lifted, employers and businesses may continue to establish their own mask requirements to protect employees and customers.

To give school districts time to prepare, the mask requirements in schools will lift on March 31. Over the coming weeks, state health officials will work with Oregon Department of Education (ODE) officials to revise guidance to ensure schools can continue operating safely and keep students in class once the school mask requirements are lifted.

State health officials thanked the more than 100 people who testified at the indoor mask rule public hearing and the many others who contributed written comments. Much of the testimony expressed concerns that: Oregon is one of few states that require masks indoors; question the effectiveness of masks; mask rules impinge on personal choices; and mask rules take decisions away from local communities, among other concerns.

In the state’s formal rule-filing report, health officials responded to the concerns commenters expressed. They presented data on the effectiveness of masks in preventing COVID-19 transmission and described the impact masks and vaccinations have had in slowing infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Oregon.


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