Used masks fill a garbage can at Salem Hospital on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
This article was updated to reflect the lifting of the state executive branch employee vaccination mandate.
Oregonians will no longer be required to wear masks indoors starting March 19, state officials announced Thursday morning, as Covid-related hospitalizations and new infections have declined rapidly in recent weeks.
Schools and school districts will also be able to drop mask mandates after March 19, moving up the state’s original March 31 timeline. Masks remain “strongly recommended” in K-12 schools, the announcement from the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education said.
Individual schools, school districts and local public health authorities can continue to require masks after that date.
And Gov. Kate Brown said she would lift the state’s emergency declaration for the pandemic on April 1, more than two years after it was first put into place.
That decision means Covid vaccinations will no longer be required for most state executive branch employees starting April 1, according to a Thursday morning email from Katy Coba, director of Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services.
State offices that have been closed to the public during the pandemic will re-open May 1, the email said.
Coba said masks remain required in health care and correctional settings, and state employees should consult their supervisors with questions, Coba’s email said.
Vaccination requirements for health care workers and K-12 educators will remain in place, Brown’s announcement said. Those rules are based on non-emergency state or federal powers, the governor’s office said.
The state of emergency declaration has allowed Oregon to deploy volunteer medical workers to hospitals and receive federal disaster relief money.
“Over the past six months, as Oregon weathered our worst surges of the pandemic, I’m proud of the way Oregonians have worked together to keep each other safe,” Brown said in a statement. “Lifting Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency declaration today does not mean that the pandemic is over, or that COVID-19 is no longer a significant concern. But, as we have shown through the Delta and Omicron surges, as we learn to live with this virus, and with so many Oregonians protected by safe and effective vaccines, we can now protect ourselves, our friends, and our families without invoking the extraordinary emergency authorities that were necessary at the beginning of the pandemic.”
State health officials said they expect the number of Oregonians hospitalized with Covid to fall under 400 people around March 20 – the level of hospitalizations seen before the omicron surge of the virus.
Hospitalizations during the omicron wave peaked Jan. 27 statewide, with 1,130 Oregonians hospitalized with Covid. As of Wednesday, Covid-related hospitalizations had declined to 579, health authority data shows.
In the state’s hospital region 2, which includes Marion and Polk counties, Covid hospitalizations peaked on Jan. 28, with 205 people, and have since declined to 124 people as of Wednesday.
“We are able to take this important step, earlier than anticipated, because of the collective diligence and the shared sacrifice that people in Oregon have demonstrated in getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting their gatherings,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer, in a statement.
It’s not yet clear how the announcement will impact Salem’s schools.
Salem-Keizer School District leaders haven’t yet made a decision on whether they will continue mask policy after the state lifts the mandate or announced a process for gathering public feedback.
The school board is scheduled to meet March 8.
“Between now and spring break, we will be speaking with our local health experts to examine the best course of action and get feedback on a proposal. We must formulate a plan that carefully considers all COVID protocols in our system, our most vulnerable students and staff, and how we transition to this next phase in the pandemic,” Superintendent Christy Perry said in a statement.
School board Chair Osvaldo Avila said he didn’t immediately have a response to the new state timeline Thursday morning and needed to review the announcement.
Board directors Danielle Bethell and Marty Heyen last week attended a rally against mask mandates outside the district’s student services center, which drew several hundred people.
State education officials said they moved up the timeline for lifting the school mask mandate after hearing feedback from school districts around the state that they could make the change sooner.
Lifting the mandate in local schools would change other Covid protocols in place that could result in students missing more school, according to guidance from ODE sent to school district leaders Feb. 15.
Schools that lift masking rules would no longer be allowed to use a “test-to-say” program, where students exposed to Covid at school can remain in class by testing negative for the virus.
And students who are within 6 feet of someone who tests positive for Covid for at least 15 minutes would again be considered “close contacts” and required to quarantine.
State health officials on Jan. 14 loosened their guidelines for tracing the virus’ spread in schools, saying school districts should only consider students “close contacts” if they were exposed to the virus while unmasked at school, like during lunch, sports practice or band rehearsal.
Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said in a statement Thursday that his agency and the health authority would work on “practical updates to safety protocols for quarantine, contact tracing, and testing that meet the current conditions of the pandemic.”