Tight-fitting N95 (right) and KN95 masks are the most protective against Covid-19. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
UPDATE: The Education Department provides more details on what’s ahead for Oregon schools, and state Republican lawmakers react.
In a sudden turnaround, the Oregon Health Authority announced Monday it will lift the state’s mask requirements by the end of March for indoor public places, including schools.
The announcement came on the same day that the agency filed a permanent state rule requiring masks indoors in public buildings with the Secretary of State’s Office. The rule was put in place to ensure mask requirements continued. The temporary rule expires on Tuesday.
The health authority indicated in a statement that its decision was guided by a slowing in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“Over the past week, the average number of newly diagnosed cases has dropped about 40% in Oregon,” it said in the statement. “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.”
The agency said it expected hospitalizations and cases to keep falling.
“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,” the statement said.
That projection aligns with the latest forecast by Oregon Health & Science University, which estimated last week that hospitalizations would peak this past weekend and then fall rapidly.
“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,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist said in a statement.
In the meantime, he said the requirements need to stay in place.
“Right now, it’s not safe to lift the mask rules,” Sidelinger said in a video. “Although newly-diagnosed daily cases of COVID-19 cases have declined dramatically in recent days, COVID-19 related hospitalizations remain stubbornly high.”
Hospitals remain under stress even with the assistance of 1,200 National Guard members and 1,000 contract professionals, he said, and masks work.
“The evidence from Oregon and around the country is clear: Masks save lives by slowing the spread of Covid-19,” Sidelinger said.
Oregon’s requirements have generated a lot of controversy, with several hundred people voicing opposition to the rule during a recent public hearing and in written testimony. They questioned the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of the virus, said the rule infringed on their personal rights and pointed out that Oregon was one of the few states to maintain the mandate.
Republican lawmakers said the announcement was long overdue.
“These metrics should have been put forward months ago,” said Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend). “Democrats in the Legislature have been silent in the face of the governor’s overreach, while Republicans have consistently pushed for checks and balances.”
State officials and OHSU, however, say the mandate has helped keep Oregon’s case rate relatively low. The state has the third lowest rate in the country and the seventh lowest death rate, the news release said. To keep rates low, it said people need to continue masking up.
The agency could lift the indoor requirement for the public sooner than March 31 but it will keep that date for schools to give them time to ensure that students are safe, the release said.
The state Health Authority said the March 31 date provides seven weeks to work with the Education Department on new guidance for schools.
In an email, Marc Siegel, communications director at the Education Department, said the March date “gives schools time to prepare for the transition from an operational standpoint, and gives families time to get boosted, and to get their kids vaccinated.”
The date also gives district leaders time to discuss with their local school boards, teacher unions, and employees whether to require masks independently of the state.
Schools that allow students and staff to go with masks indoors would no longer be eligible for the test-to-stay program. That provides for unvaccinated students who test positive for the virus to stay in school as long as they test negative three to five days later instead of being required to quarantine outside of school.
Nearly 204,000 Oregon students ages 12 to 17, about 70%, have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, and about 37% of students ages five to 11, over 125,000 kids, have received at least one dose.
In the Alsea School District near Corvallis, the local school board and Superintendent Marc Thielman made masks optional Jan. 31, defying Gov. Kate Brown’s mask mandate and guidance from the state Health Authority. In response, the state Education Department froze the district’s federal Covid relief dollars.
The district is currently under investigation by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and could face fines of up to $500 for each day the mask mandate is violated.
Reporter Alex Baumhardt of the Oregon Capital Chronicle contributed reporting.
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