With the end of Oregon's indoor mask mandate looming, state health officials painted a rosy picture of the future and said Oregon is shifting away from the "emergency phase" of the pandemic during a Friday, March 11, press conference.
Officials with the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education focused on what Oregonians can expect as the state transitions away from precautions, including required face coverings indoors.
"Today, at 11:59 p.m., masks will no longer be required indoors in public places and in schools," said Health Authority Director Patrick Allen during the press conference. "That's a watershed moment in this pandemic. It's a direct result of the actions Oregonians have taken over the past two years."
Masking and other COVID protocols will return to local control Saturday, meaning school districts can decide their own requirements. Allen credited public adherence to COVID safety practices with allowing Oregon's shift toward reopening.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, said the omicron variant could have been worse for the state, but Oregonians' actions helped mitigate the danger.
"Oregonians heeded that warning," he said, referencing initial projections of hospitalizations from the variant. "You stepped up as so often has happened throughout the pandemic. You got vaccinated and boosted, you wore a mask and you changed your gatherings."
Sidelinger said health care settings across Oregon are better off because of it.
"Our hospitals are no longer imperiled," he said. "The data indicates the spread of COVID-19 has tapered dramatically."
"Our hospitals are no longer imperiled. The data indicates the spread of COVID-19 has tapered dramatically." —Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist
The Health Authority estimates vaccinations, masking and social distancing have saved about 5,700 lives in the state, Allen said, based on comparisons between Oregon's death rate and the national average.
Sidelinger said conditions now warrant lifting the mask mandates, with hospitalizations returning to "levels we experienced in late summer before the delta and omicron surges."
Daily hospitalizations in the state have fallen by 77% since the peak of the omicron variant, he said.
"Today is also a turning point," Allen said. "At this time, with omicron waning and so few Oregonians susceptible to new infections, we can close the emergency phase of Oregon's COVID-19 response and open a new one."
On Friday, the Health Authority released a five-point recovery plan called RISE: Resilience in Support of Equity. The plan aims to keep Oregonians protected from COVID while supporting the needs of local communities, including schools.
Allen said the goal is not only to address pandemic but also to help communities that have been hit disproportionately hard and resolve "longstanding health inequities."
"Before the pandemic, systemic racism and oppression fueled unfair health inequities that have shortened lives for many people and burdened communities of color and tribal communities with trauma, higher rates of chronic disease and other conditions," Allen said.
He said the pandemic only made the issue worse.
"But this new phase means OHA and other state agencies need to play a different role than the one we have played during the first two years of the pandemic," Allen said. "It means we can scale back the broad policy interventions and supply efforts COVID-19 initially demanded and focus on people and communities most harmed during the pandemic, as well as people who continue to be most vulnerable to COVID-19."
According to the Health Authority, the RISE plan will help schools manage how to approach COVID outbreaks and keep both students and staff safe.
Many school districts, including Portland Public Schools, Beaverton and Tigard-Tualatin, have opted to go mask-optional. While these districts are making masks optional starting on Monday, the Parkrose School District said masking won't be optional for their students and staff until March 29.
"Local school districts can still make a decision about local masking requirements," said Education Department Director Colt Gill.
Gill said those decisions at local levels are being made with help from a tool from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that classifies COVID risk levels in every county across the nation. Most of Oregon's counties, Gill said, are categorized as low-risk.
"When schools make masks optional, optional means optional," Gill said. "Any student who chooses to continue, or staff member that chooses to continue to wear a mask, should be able to do so."
Masks are still federally required meaning planes, trains and buses are all places that require masks at least until April 18.
While precautions are steadily rolled back in states across the country, Allen said Oregon health officials will plan for any resurgence, will continue to test for COVID in wastewater, maintain vaccine supplies, distribute coronavirus treatments to providers and keep testing capacity at a minimum of 130,000 tests per week.
Despite promising signs from declining hospitalizations and infections, officials said the pandemic is not yet over.
"We fully expect new variants to emerge but we believe the firewall of immunity we currently have will keep the virus at bay," Sidelinger said.
KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.