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Local health experts still urge good hygeine and caution as people shed their masks

The state masking and social distancing mandates have been lifted, and it seems that the days of living a pandemic-stunted life are finally over.

Evidence of this can be found throughout the Prineville community and beyond. Restaurants, stores and other places of businesses no longer have mask requirement signs on their doors, only the adhesive remnants of stickers placed 6 feet apart on floors remain in shopping centers.

But are we completely out of the woods? It's a tough question for health experts to answer.

"That is a moving target, so it is really hard to tell," says Vicky Ryan, Crook County's emergency preparedness coordinator who has tracked case numbers and vaccination rates for months. But she does believe these next couple weeks will add some clarity.

"Because the requirements were just dropped (on June 30), we will probably know in the next week whether or not we see a spike in cases," she said. "Our cases spiked in Crook County and then dropped off substantially, so we are sitting on the edge of our seat, waiting to see if we get a spike in cases when that 10- to 14-day period (has passed)."

Ryan offered reasons for optimism. Other communities are not reporting spikes at this point, and Oregon as a state reached its 70% threshold for adults receiving at least one COVID vaccine dose. At the same time, the state is watching the variants, which have caused surges in other places, very closely.

As Crook County joins the rest of the state moving forward into an era free of mask and social distance mandates, local public health experts still encourage people to protect themselves in other ways.

"If you're sick, stay home," Ryan said. "Continue to wash your hands. If you have compromised medical conditions, then you may want to consider continuing to wear a mask."

Meanwhile, masks are still required in medical facilities, including doctor's offices, hospitals and county health departments.

"Some employers are still requiring their staff to wear their masks," Ryan added, "which is up to the employer – they can mandate that."

And even though Oregon reached its 70% vaccination target, health experts are still encouraging people to get the COVID vaccine. Ryan points out that there are plenty of places locally for people to get vaccinated if they choose to.

She went on to encourage those who are hesitant to research the vaccines.

"There is a lot of data out there explaining the vaccine and to answer all of the questions that people have," Ryan said. "We highly encourage people to go out and gather their own information."

Going forward, some questions still remain. Will COVID cases surge as we move into the fall and winter months, like they did in 2020? Will booster vaccines be necessary? But at this point, those answers will have to wait.

"The jury is still out on that," Ryan said.

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