Multnomah County urges indoor masking as COVID cases rise
Multnomah County health officials are urging people to wear masks indoors again amid rising cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and outbreaks.
"This is not a mandate, but we are asking everyone to put their masks back on for a few weeks as they go to school, work and other indoor events," said Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County's health officer, in a statement Wednesday, May 11. "We want to minimize the spread of illness so that people stay well and can attend all the spring events they have planned."
Officials stressed the importance of other precautions too, including getting vaccinated, good hand hygiene and staying home from work or school when feeling sick.
People who've had a recent exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a well-fitting mask around others for 10 days after the exposure and test themselves for the virus on the fifth day, officials said.
Such precautions are especially important for people who are at higher risk for serious illness, they said, adding that higher-risk people may consider avoiding crowded indoor settings "for the next few weeks."
The mask recommendation will last until cases and hospitalizations drop, officials said. They did not specify a threshold that would prompt them to lift the recommendation.
Cases counts have been rising across the state since the end of March, shortly after Oregon's indoor mask mandate was lifted.
The number of new daily cases in Oregon have recently matched those of mid-December, when the omicron variant started to take hold. The B2.A omicron subvariant has been the dominant strain in Oregon since early last month. Like the original strain of omicron, the B2.A subvariant has been known to cause milder disease generally.
Hospitalizations have been rising since mid-April in Oregon's Region 1, an area that includes Portland metro area counties as well as Columbia, Clatsop and Tillamook counties. School-age people have been spared from the increase in hospitalizations, county officials said, suggesting the disease continues to be mild or asymptomatic in that age group.
"But cases are also rising and outbreaks are increasing in schools and among school-age children and teens," officials said. "We strongly recommend indoor masking in schools."
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved Multnomah County's community spread category from "low" to "medium" due to rising cases.
The medium category comes with a recommendation for higher-risk people to talk to their doctor about wearing a mask and staying up to date on vaccines. It also includes a recommendation to wear a mask on public transportation and if people have symptoms, test positive or are exposed to someone with COVID-19. Federal health officials don't recommend indoor mask-wearing for all people in a county until the area reaches the "high" community spread level.
Other Portland area counties in the CDC's medium category include Washington, Clackamas and Columbia counties. Public health officials in those counties have not recommended indoor mask wearing for all people.
Last week, Multnomah County public health officials told the board of commissioners there would have to be a significant change in people's level of immunity or the severity of disease for them to considering mandated precautions again. A new variant that evades vaccine effectiveness or is substantially more severe might prompt mandates, they said.
"We should not be waiting for mandates to understand what's going on and shift our behavior based on risk," said Jessica Guernsey, the county's public health director.
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