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Jackson County Public Health recommends masks

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJessica Eaglen, of Medford, and Jonathan Martine, of Medford, shop Wednesday at Black Bir. Eaglen and Martine say they are fed up with mask mandates a recommendations and do not plan on masking in public.
Local cases, hospitalizations are rising again

Jackson County Public Health announced Wednesday it is strongly recommending that people return to wearing masks in public indoor spaces, even if they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

The recommendation for everyone 5 and older follows similar recommendations from the Oregon Health Authority and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon lifted its mask mandate for public settings June 30, although it remains in place for certain settings, such as hospitals and public transit.

The new recommendations to resume wearing masks in other public settings are voluntary.

COVID-19 cases are rising in Jackson County, with 107 cases reported Tuesday and 91 new cases reported Wednesday. The county reported two more deaths Wednesday among people with the COVID-19 virus ― a 92-year-old woman and a 99-year-old woman.

County health officials said since June 27, the county has seen cases and hospitalizations rise by more than 200%.

With 52 intensive care unit beds filled, hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties had only five intensive care beds available Tuesday, according to state data.

Jackson County Public Health officials said they issued the masking recommendation because of rising COVID-19 cases, the spread of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus and the county’s relatively low vaccination rate of 54.7% for people 18 and older.

“The Delta variant has thrown us a curveball,” said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director. “We had recommendations based on the virus that we knew, and we knew that when you were fully vaccinated, it was very unlikely for you to get sick, and extremely unlikely for you to get hospitalized and you were unlikely to pass it to others.”

Shames said the COVID-19 vaccines are still highly effective at preventing illness and death, including for the Delta variant.

"However, the Delta variant is much more contagious and so even vaccinated individuals can apparently carry significant virus and pass it to others. The CDC has taken this new data and looked at what they know and come up with new recommendations to keep the public safe,“ Shames said.

He added, “It makes sense to me. It’s something that I’ve started to do. I wear a mask when I’m shopping or around others who are not part of my family in enclosed spaces. It protects me and it could protect others if I was inadvertently carrying the virus but not getting sick from it.”

A recent study found the Delta variant viral load in infected people’s bodies is 1,000 times higher than for the original virus, meaning infected people are carrying and shedding more of the virus. They can infect others, who then become contagious themselves and spread the virus further, Jackson County Public Health officials said.

The Delta variant also has a mutation that allows it to more easily infect human cells. It replicates more quickly as well, scientists say.

The variant is linked to 80% of new cases in Oregon, said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and state health officer.

Shames, who is vaccinated, acknowledged the recommendation to go back to wearing masks can be frustrating for people. He said scientists are analyzing data from the evolving situation and trying to come up with guidelines.

“We all want this to be over. We all want to take our masks off. We all want to have our kids be able to run around and play without masks like kids used to do,” he said. “But I also think we need to be realistic and understand this is a dynamic situation. It’s got very significant health implications. Hopefully everyone can remain flexible and make adjustments. It’s not about anyone’s personal freedom. It’s really about public safety.”

Shames said the pandemic remains especially risky for those who aren’t vaccinated.

“We really have two pandemics going. We have the pandemic for those that are vaccinated, which is greatly under control and we have very few people being hospitalized and dying with breakthrough cases,” he said. “And then we have the pandemic for those who are unvaccinated. Things are not looking good for that group. They’re increasingly getting sick and hospitalized and the mortality rate is going up. The number of people needing to be intubated is going up.”

Shames said the CDC issued the recommendation to return to wearing masks, in part, to account for the fact that vaccinated and unvaccinated people are mingling.

Vaccine effectiveness studies are providing a growing body of evidence that messenger RNA COVID-19 vaccines are more than 90% effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalizations.

Messenger RNA vaccines don’t interfere with people’s DNA, give people COVID-19 or cause infertility. They instruct cells to make harmless pieces of protein that are like the spikes on the COVID-19 virus. The body recognizes those protein pieces as foreign and makes antibodies that can fight the COVID-19 virus if it ever does invade the body, according to the CDC.

In addition to wearing masks, Jackson County Public Health is recommending that people get vaccinated, stay home when they are sick, stay away from others who are ill, wash their hands and physically distance.

Statewide, new vaccinations have slowed to a trickle, averaging 4,610 doses per day over the past week, OHA reported Wednesday.

Shames said Jackson County Public Health is continuing outreach and ad campaigns to groups that are lagging on vaccinations, including people of color and teens and young adults.

“We are aware of the groups that need to be reached and each of those groups needs a somewhat different approach. How you reach a 50-year-old white male is going to be quite different than a teenager or a young Hispanic family,” he said.

Shames said a segment of the public isn’t necessarily against vaccination, but is waiting for more information.

“That’s the group we will continue to work hard to give them information and make it easy for them to get vaccinated when they’re ready. There is a group of individuals who seem to be dead-set against getting vaccinated. We know those people are capable of changing their minds. But in terms of resources we have available, we’re certainly aiming for those whose minds are not made up,” Shames said.

For information on vaccines and where to get vaccinated, visit https://jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/COVID-19/Vaccine-Appointments. Free vaccinations are available at various sites in the community on an appointment or drop-in basis.

Easy-to-access locations include a mobile clinic with free, drop-in vaccinations from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday at La Placita, 2080 W. Main St., Medford. No identification or insurance is needed.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.