Over the past 18 months, Gov. Kate Brown has taken considerable heat for her handling of Oregon's efforts to combat COVID-19. So, she ought to be credited for making the right moves this month in requiring that people, including students, mask up indoors, regardless of their vaccine status, and ordering most state workers to get their shots.
Those were the right decisions based on the science and we predict they will end up being the right moves politically.
When Brown issued her masks-in-schools order on July 29, it was viewed as a bold move, even among those — including us — who supported it. At the time, Oregon was an outlier. Now, school mask mandates are in place — at least at the district level — in more than half the states, including some in which governors and state lawmakers have tried to ban this common-sense approach to protecting children.
Similarly, although Brown became just the nation's third governor to re-impose indoor mask mandates regardless of vaccine status, she won't be the last, as COVID's delta variant sweeps the nation, sending both the unvaccinated and vaccinated (nearly 200 in Oregon, according to the New York Times tally) to hospitals.
The governor's announcement came a day after Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury announced she was reinstating a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, regardless of people's vaccine status. That makes sense even in a county where more than two-thirds of the population is vaccinated. It makes even more sense in the dozen counties where the vaccination rate is lower than 50%.
A recent analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that counties with low vaccination rates tend to have the highest COVID infection rates. The most dramatic example is Umatilla County in the northeast corner of the state. The Oregonian/OregonLive analysis found that 44% of county residents are vaccinated, the second-lowest among Oregon counties with significant populations. Its rate of COVID-19 cases stood at 61-per-10,000 residents, the highest in the state for populous counties, and seven times the rate in Multnomah County.
It's often these same areas that are least able to deal with the combination of resistance to masks and aversion to the vaccines as the highly contagious delta variant demands swift action.
According to the state health department, 109 Oregonians were hospitalized for COVID-19 on July 9. On Monday, a month later, that number was nearly 600 and climbing, with new estimates showing that the number could reach 1,000 next month, which would double the previous peak seen last winter.
What's more, the rate of COVID-patients ending up in intensive care units is rising at an even faster rate. At the start of this week, nearly 90% of Oregon's 318 staffed ICUs were full. In the state's Region 5, which includes Jackson and Josephine counties, there were four beds available. In Region 6, which includes Hood River, Gilliam, Sherman and Wasco counties, there was one.
That's why other leaders — in the private and public sector — need to do more.
We realize that vaccine mandates are a heavy lift for many private employers, but given the rise in "break-through" cases among vaccinated Oregonians, they should re-emphasize the need to wear masks in the workplace regardless of their employees' vaccine status and urge any unvaccinated workers to get their shots.
As a pulmonologist, state Rep. Maxine Dexter understands all too well the danger of this most recent variant. That's why she joined Kafoury to support what is no doubt an unpopular decision to bring back the mask mandate.
"We need national, state and local leaders to rise to the occasion like leaders here today in Multnomah County," she said. "To follow the science and to implement and voice support for safety measures like masking and vaccines that keep communities safe from this deadly virus."
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