Used masks fill a garbage can at Salem Hospital on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Oregonians can drop their masks indoors starting March 12, Gov. Kate Brown said Monday morning (February 28, 2022). The announcement moves up by one week the timeline state health officials announced just days ago.
Oregon had been scheduled to lift masking mandates in most public places March 19. Brown acted jointly with Democratic governors Jay Inslee of Washington and Gavin Newsom of California, who will lift their state’s indoor mandates on the same date, according to a joint news release.
“As has been made clear time and again over the last two years, COVID-19 does not stop at state borders or county lines,” Brown said in a statement. “On the West Coast, our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the Omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic.”
Brown acted because of “rapidly declining COVID-19 hospitalizations along the West Coast,” said Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for her office, as well as improved modeling at the state level and new guidance Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those factors “indicate mask requirements can safely be lifted earlier than previously announced,” Merah said.
The CDC on Friday recommended Americans continue to wear masks indoors in areas where community spread of Covid is high, but said in areas with low or medium spread, most people do not need to wear masks indoors. Both Marion and Polk counties are recording medium spread of COVID, according to CDC data, as is the Portland Metro area. Counties further south along the I-5 corridor, including Linn, Benton and Lane, are still seeing high spread of COVID, as is much of southern and southeastern Oregon.
In Oregon, the mandate will lift for most indoor public places, including schools, at 11:59 p.m. March 11. Masks will remain required in some settings because of other state or federal rules.
Those include hospitals and health care facilities, including long-term care and skilled nursing facilities, said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger in a Monday news conference.
“This is where some of the most vulnerable members of our Oregon community seek care. It’s also where people with COVID-19 often go to seek care,” Sidelinger said. “We want to ensure that the workforce, as well as the visitors and patients in those settings have the highest level of protection. We’d like to see cases come down more before we lift the requirement for masks in these settings.”
Federal rules set to expire March 18 currently require masks be worn on public transit, including city buses, as well as on airplanes and in airports.
The announcement comes as new COVID infections and related hospitalizations have been falling rapidly from a late January peak during the omicron surge.
As of Feb. 25, there were 527 Oregonians hospitalized with COVID, according to Oregon Health Authority data. That’s down from 741 one week prior, and an Omicron peak of 1,130 on Jan. 27.
In region 2, the hospital area including Marion, Polk, Linn, Benton, Lincoln and Yamhill counties, there were 136 people hospitalized with COVID on Feb. 25, down from 151 a week before, and a peak of 205 on Jan. 28.
State health officials previously said they aimed to lift the mask mandate by the end of March, or once the state had fewer than 400 people hospitalized with COVID.
With the lifting of a statewide mask mandate for schools, local school boards and district leaders may still choose to impose mandates locally.
Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, said last week district leaders and the school board would consult with local health authorities and develop a plan before the district’s spring break, which begins March 21.
The faster timeline Brown announced Monday means district leaders will have to make a decision sooner. The school board is next scheduled to meet March 8. Perry said Monday morning she was in meetings reviewing federal masking guidelines.
Colt Gill, who leads the state Department of Education, said in a Monday news conference that his agency would release updated guidelines Wednesday for quarantining students exposed to COVID and other safety protocols in light of changing federal guidelines and the mask mandate lifting.
Gill said his agency moved up the timeline to drop school mask requirements with the rest of the state because school leaders in Oregon have previously said it’s challenging when K-12 schools have different rules than the rest of the state.
He said he expects some districts may elect to temporarily continue requiring masks as they sort out policies and agreements with employee unions.
“Many (school districts), we may see continue with masks locally for that week before spring break before they begin to implement changes,” Gill said.