As Oregon ends mask mandate, state officials explain why it’s now safe to do so

After nearly two years, masks will no longer be required for indoor public spaces in Oregon starting Saturday. Businesses and private workplaces will be free to set their own masking policies for customers and employees.

The Oregon Health Authority confirmed Friday that it was safe to lift the mask mandate as planned.

OHA Director Patrick Allen called it a watershed moment.

“This is a direct result of the actions Oregonians have taken over the past two years: getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting social gatherings during COVID-19 outbreaks,” he said in statements. prepared remarks. “The rate at which Oregonians have taken these actions far exceeds national averages.”

The state estimates that masks, vaccinations and other measures have saved the lives of about 5,700 Oregonians over the past two years.

Oregon’s statewide mask mandate first went into effect in July 2020. It was briefly halted last summer before being reinstated six weeks later in the middle of a wave of COVID-19 cases. In an interview on OPB’s Morning Edition, state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said that in many cases, it’s safe for people to stop wearing masks in indoor public spaces.

Signs remind visitors that masks are mandatory at Prescott Elementary School, Feb. 8, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

“In most counties, where case rates and hospitalizations are much lower now, removing your mask and going into these settings is safe and likely won’t increase your risk of getting COVID,” Sidelinger said.

Since it was first announced that the end of Mask’s tenure was on the horizon, the date has been brought forward twice. A month ago, officials at the Oregon Health Authority said they were lifting the mask mandate for indoor public spaces by March 31. That date has been moved to March 19, and now it should be lifted on Saturday. Washington’s indoor mask mandate is also set to be lifted on Saturday.

“Our projections showed that the number of Oregonians in hospital with COVID-19 would decline quite sharply,” Sidelinger said. “That number has fallen even faster than expected.”

The state will still require masks in certain settings such as health care facilities, transportation hubs, and group living situations.

Masks will no longer be required at many public schools in Oregon, including the state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, starting Monday. But Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education, says face covering requirements are local decisions.

“We are seeing some that extend the date a little further than spring break. Others are in decision-making mode,” Gill said.

Gill said districts use the state’s COVID-19 web tool to find out which areas still have high levels of the virus and make the appropriate decision.

Sidelinger said some immunocompromised people and people caring for elderly relatives can still take extra precautions by wearing masks and limiting gatherings.

Related: TSA extends travel mask mandate until April 18

“We know that individuals will assess their own risk factors, assess their own circumstances, and may make different decisions to continue wearing masks if they are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 due to underlying conditions. “, did he declare.

Meanwhile, health officials have said that with the omicron wave gone and so few Oregonians susceptible to new infections, the state may close the emergency phase of its COVID-19 response. and open a new one.

“In this next phase, our goal is to build health resilience in our communities – not only to fight COVID-19, but also to address long-standing health inequities and other challenges,” said Allen said.

The state calls the idea its “RISE” plan — short for Resilience in Support of Equity — and the OHA released the outline of the plan Friday morning ahead of a press conference with Allen, Sidelinger and the Department of Health director. Education of Oregon, Colt Gill.

The RISE plan has five steps: monitor COVID-19, protect those most at risk, reinvigorate communities, keep schools open, and eliminate health inequities.

As Oregon prepares for a new reality in which masks are more often an option than a requirement, Sidelinger said the state health authority has heard comments both for and against ending the mandate.

“Some people think the mask mandate should have been lifted a long time ago and are really looking forward to being able to take their masks off,” he said. “There are other people because they are immunocompromised … who are nervous about lifting the mask mandate.”

During his interview, Sidelinger noted the positive impacts of lifting the mandate, specifically mentioning people who are hard of hearing and need to read lips.

Sidelinger also said the end of the term is a sign that the state is moving forward and can now begin to address the issues caused by the pandemic. Access to mental health care and distance education for children are among the issues he mentioned.

“We can work together to come out of this even stronger than when we came in,” Sidelinger said. “Oregonians have stepped up already and I know they will in the future. “

Sideliner said there was no indication that mask requirements would return, and he noted that there was no concerning emerging variant on the horizon.

“I would never say never, but…we have tools that can help control this virus without needing to go back to some of these statewide requirements that we’ve had in the past,” he said. -he declares. “But we will continue to monitor this, and people will continue to make decisions based on their own circumstances and risks.”

In prepared remarks Friday, Sidelinger acknowledged that some Oregonians might feel an added sense of security wearing a mask after the mandate is lifted.

“I hope it becomes as commonplace as someone choosing to carry an umbrella on a rainy day.”

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