The last of the pandemic limits Oregonians have endured for nearly two years are ending, with state authorities lifting mask requirements by Friday, March 19, and the state of emergency ending April 1, state officials announced Thursday.
That means that this spring, life in Oregon will officially be back to normal though the virus is not going away. But the announcements indicate that state officials think that it is time that Oregonians live with the risk of COVID the same way they cope with influenza or cold viruses.
“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.” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “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.”
Masks won’t be required in either schools or indoor public places after March 19, about two weeks earlier than expected. The Oregon Health Authority had set March 31 as the end date, but said if hospitalizations of people with COVID drop to 400 sooner, it would lift the indoor mask mandate sooner.
The health authority said in a statement Thursday that hospitalizations are expected to reach 400 by March 20. That is based on the latest forecast from the Oregon Health & Science University, the agency said.
The statement said that preparations in schools were advancing more quickly than expected, which allowed the state to lift that mandate earlier than March 31.
“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,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and epidemiologist, said in a statement.
Brown echoed that sentiment in her statement: “Over the past six months, as Oregon weathered our worst surges of the pandemic (and) I’m proud of the way Oregonians have worked together to keep each other safe.”
Mask mandates will remain in effect in health care facilities — and in correctional settings, according to the Salem Reporter. An email from Katy Coba, chief operating officer and director of Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services, also said that state office buildings on the Capitol mall in Salem and the Portland State Office building in Northeast Portland that have been only been open to the public by appointment will reopen May 1.
“We strongly encourage all employees to take any necessary steps they deem appropriate to protect themselves, their family, their co-workers and their community from COVID-19, Coba said in the email. “If any employee would like to continue to wear a mask in their workplace, they are welcome to and are fully supported in doing so. Embracing a positive and respectful workplace has always been a priority for state employees and will need to become an even higher priority as more employees return to the workplace.”
The end of the mandates and state of emergency will not lift vaccination requirements for health care workers and K-12 educators, Brown said in her statement. Those requirements were put in place by state or federal non-emergency authority, the statement said.
Oregon is one of the last states to lift mask mandates. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said earlier this month that he would lift his state’s indoor mask mandate on March 21, a day after the first day of spring this year.
Most Oregonians are not likely to notice the end of the governor’s state of emergency. The emergency order, put in place on June 30, provided the state flexibility to respond to the pandemic by mobilizing volunteer medical professionals in hospitals, including many who are retired. The order also gave the state the ability to loosen medical license standards to bring in more nurses, for example. And it gave Oregon access to emergency federal funds, including enhanced benefits for people receiving food assistance.
Most of the governor’s executive orders on COVID were rescinded last year. Brown did mobilize the Oregon National Guard again in January, deploying 1,200 troops to 40 hospitals and medical centers around the state. They were mobilized for 90 days. Ursulla Bischoff, chief, civic engagement for the Oregon Military Department, said troops will demobilize at the end of March.
That’s still the plan,” said Bischoff said.
Infections have fallen rapidly in recent weeks. Over the past month, new infections have declined by more than 80%. The seven-day moving average is now 1,147 cases a day — 84% lower than at the peak of the omicron surge.
Daily COVID hospitalizations also have dropped nearly 50% since peaking in late January. Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations have fallen by an average of more than 30 a day, the health authority said.
On Wednesday, 579 people were hospitalized with COVID around the state.
“Our hospitals are still dealing with elevated patient populations,” Sidelinger said in a video statement. “But the data tell us that the stress on our hospital system is clearly easing. Contingency planners can now turn their attention to eventually drawing down the additional outside resources, such as nurse staffing, that were needed to provide patient care.”
The Oregon Health Authority has contracted with temporary staffing agencies, hiring about 1,000 nurses, certified nursing assistants and other professionals to work in hospitals.
State officials said that three weeks is enough time for local communities and school districts to prepare for lifting the mask mandates.
Colt Gill, director of the Education Department, said in a statement that education and health officials were working on updating safety protocols for quarantine, contact tracing and testing to match the current state of the pandemic.
“These guidelines will continue to support our North Star goal of providing in-person learning for every student, all day, every school day and will focus on specific supports for students, staff, and families that may be at more risk from COVID-19 than others in the school population,” Gill said in a statement.
Some schools have already lifted the mask mandate or said they would do so soon, defying state officials.
In the Alsea School District near Corvallis, the local school board and then-Superintendent Marc Thielman made masks optional on Jan. 31. In response, the state Education Department froze the district’s federal COVID relief dollars.
Thielman recently resigned to run for governor.
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.
Though the mandate will be lifted, the Education Department still recommends that schools continue to enforce masking after March 19. Districts that choose to make masks optional will sacrifice their access to the test-to-stay program that had allowed unvaccinated students to stay in school even after an exposure. Without a mask requirement in schools, unvaccinated students will need to quarantine immediately after an exposure, the state said Thursday.
“Those settings bring together vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, as well as individuals who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness,” the Oregon Health Authority said in its statement.
Many schools are likely to not require masks.
Chris Fritsch, superintendent in Pendleton, said after gathering school and community feedback, they’ll make masks optional after the mandate. “We have polled staff, parents and students. By large majorities most will be opting not to wear a face covering when it becomes optional,” Fritsch said.
But others said they would wait for updated guidance from the Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority next week, when there will be a revised “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework” that advises schools on how to stay safe and stay open. Ryan Noss, superintendent in the Corvallis School District, said his district will wait for the updates to make a decision.
“Keeping our school open and students in our classrooms will remain the priority in any decision,” Noss said.
State officials also recommend that people in high-risk groups continue to wear masks in indoor public settings after the restrictions are lifted. They include people who are not vaccinated, have underlying health conditions that put them at risk for severe disease, are 65 or older or live with someone in those categories.
Reporter Alex Baumhardt contributed to this report.
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