COVID: Oregon issues mask mandate, warns of hospital surge
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide indoor mask requirement Tuesday due to the spike in coronavirus hospitalizations and cases, warning that the state's health care system could be overwhelmed.
Beginning Friday, everyone 5 and older in Oregon — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Brown had urged local officials to implement their own mandates, but almost none did.
The newest coronavirus health and safety measure in Oregon applies to all indoor public spaces, including businesses, grocery stores, indoor entertainment venues and gyms. In addition, people older than 2 years old will be required to wear masks on public transit.
There are some mask exemptions for activities, including eating, drinking, swimming and organized sports.
The mask mandate comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations spiral out of control, reaching record numbers for the state. On Tuesday, 635 people were hospitalized in Oregon because of coronavirus, surpassing the state’s previous record of 622 people hospitalized during November’s surge when vaccine doses were not yet available.
Health officials warned that, without new health and safety interventions in place, coronavirus hospitalizations would far exceed Oregon’s health system capacity in the next several weeks.
“Oregon is facing a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations — consisting overwhelmingly of unvaccinated individuals — that is quickly exceeding the darkest days of our winter surge,” Brown said. “When our hospitals are full, there will be no room for additional patients needing care — whether for COVID-19, a heart attack or stroke, a car collision, or a variety of other emergency situations.”
Throughout the pandemic, health officials have described Oregon as a success story as it has had some of the lowest coronavirus case and death rates nationally — largely because of the state’s strict restrictions, which were lifted at the end of June.
As the delta variant began rapidly spreading across the state last month, Brown turned to county officials — giving them local control on whether to implement mask mandates.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, city and county leaders have asked me for local control and the ability to make local public health decisions when it comes to COVID-19,” Brown said.
Earlier this month, the governor announced that masks would be required in K-12 schools and in any indoor state agency building. In addition the state health authority made a statewide recommendation that people, vaccinated or not, wear masks while in indoor public spaces, but again stopped short of reinstating an indoor mask mandate.
As coronavirus cases spiked, there continued to be inaction by nearly all of the state's counties. A few counties issued mask mandates for county agency buildings. However only one county — Multnomah — announced a mask requirement for all public indoor spaces.
The Associated Press reached out to each of Oregon's 36 counties this month to ask about plans to implement mask mandates. Out of the 16 counties that responded, nearly all indicated that they were concerned about the rise in coronavirus cases but only one had issued an indoor mask mandate and most gave a resounding “No” when asked if they had plans to issue one.
"At this point, those who are most likely to adhere to a mask mandate are already vaccinated, so I’m not convinced new mandates will be all that effective in containing the delta variant,” Gilliam County Judge Elizabeth Farrar Campbell said.
While county officials said they felt the decision to implement mask requirements should be a local decision, some health officials urged the governor to issue a statewide mandate as hospitals became overwhelmed with an influx of COVID-19 patients.
“OHSU believes the entire state should be masking,” Renee Edwards, the chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Science University, said Monday. “I recognize this is being decided at a local level, but every community’s actions will lead to consequences at a state and even a global level.”
In a final call to action, Brown met with county leaders and elected officials last week and urged them to institute mask requirements.
“The latest science is clear: Although unvaccinated individuals are more likely to contract the disease, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant,” Brown said. “Masks are a simple and effective way to make sure you are not unknowingly infecting your friends, family members, neighbors and colleagues.”
Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.