Health officials say Oregon's cases and hospitalizations will taper off soon

MULTNOMAH COUNTY PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - A woman wears a face covering at the Multnomah County Health Department. Oregon Health Authority says it will lift the state's indoor mask mandate by March 31.The Oregon Health Authority announced Monday that it will lift the state's indoor mask mandate by March 31.

State health leaders expect that by late March, Oregon's COVID-19 hospitalizations will taper off to about 400 or fewer. That's the level the state recorded before the Omicron variant began to spread.

"The evidence from Oregon and around the country is clear: masks save lives by slowing the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state's epidemiologist. "We should see COVID-19 hospitalizations drop by the end of March because so many Oregonians are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect themselves and each other, such as getting a booster shot or vaccinating their children. At that point, it will be safer to lift mask requirements."

Indoor mask requirements have been in place for much of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will remain in place until further notice for now, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to strain the state's hospital system.

OHA is strongly recommending high-risk people, including those with underlying health conditions, those who are 65 and older, and those who are immunocompromised, continue wearing masks indoors. The same advice goes for those who aren't vaccinated.

Once requirements are lifted, employers and businesses may continue to establish their own mask requirements.

The announcement comes days after the health authority filed rules with the Oregon Secretary of State to keep the state's indoor mask requirement in place, replacing a temporary rule that was set to expire Feb. 8. The new rule allowed health officials to extend the current restrictions past their temporary expiration date until no longer needed, OHA said.

Oregon's average number of newly diagnosed cases has dropped about 40% over the past week, according to the OHA. Despite that, hospitalizations have remained above 1,000 per day.

OHA said Oregon has the "third lowest cumulative COVID-19 case rate in the nation and the seventh lowest COVID-19 death rate" since the start of the pandemic. In the state filing Monday, Oregon health officials said scientific research has shown that masks protect people from COVID-19, and the state's overall compliance with mask rules, combined with a high vaccination rate, has blunted the Omicron surge and prevented a meltdown of Oregon's hospital system, at least for now. According to Oregon Health & Science University data, more than 8 in 10 Oregonians report continuing to wear masks in public.

That has helped Oregon prevent topping the 1,178 hospitalizations recorded during the peak of the Delta variant surge, despite initial hospitalization projects the state received.

If hospitalizations decline low enough, state health officials said they'll consider lifting the mandate sooner than March 31.

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