Oregon’s tenuous position against the coronavirus teetered further Tuesday as the state reported its highest daily case count in at least three months and a 25% single-day surge in people hospitalized with COVID-19, prompting state officials to recommend universal masking in indoor public spaces.
The Oregon Health Authority reported 1,032 new confirmed and presumptive cases, a one-day total roughly equal to case counts for an entire week to start July.
Meanwhile, state officials reported 259 people with COVID-19 are actively hospitalized, up 52 from Monday, the biggest daily jump since the start of the pandemic.
“Today’s reported sharp rise in confirmed and presumptive cases and in hospitalizations in Oregon are sobering reminders that the pandemic is not over, especially for Oregonians who remain unvaccinated,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and state health officer, said in a statement.
The huge jump in coronavirus pandemic metrics reflects how vaccination rates have flatlined in Oregon and the swift spread of the highly contagious delta variant that now accounts for the majority of infections in the United States.
In response, the Oregon Health Authority Tuesday recommended all Oregonians regardless of vaccination status wear masks when in indoor public places across the entire state. The announcement followed a recommendation Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for masks in areas with high case rates, which would include 25 of Oregon’s 36 counties.
But officials have not outlined any plans for statewide mandates since the state lifted restrictions June 30 and have said they plan to leave containment measures to the counties. Gov. Kate Brown’s office reiterated that approach, saying the focus now should be on reaching those who have not yet gotten shots.
“Masks are one measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, but to beat back COVID-19 for good we need to reach unvaccinated Oregonians to get their questions answered, so that they can join the 7 in 10 adult Oregonians who already have received at least a first dose,” spokesman Charles Boyle said in an email.
Vaccination numbers have stalled, with less than 5,000 doses administered daily.
Mask mandates are a divisive subject, with some public health officials and academic experts reluctant to say exactly what the state should do. While experts say masks have successfully curbed spread in the past, the delta variant is thought to be about twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus, and only a handful of counties across the country have reimplemented masking requirements.
Dr. Peter Graven, an Oregon Health & Science University professor who has published pandemic models for Oregon, including one last week that forecasts hospitalizations reaching about 335 in September, said Oregonians might start masking up in response to the uptick in cases even without mandates. Vaccination numbers could go up, as well, he said.
A University of Washington epidemiologist said he couldn’t understand why Oregon has not yet mandated masks indoors, citing the state’s track record of taking effective steps to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“They’ve done the right thing in the past,” Ali Mokdad said. “Why wait now?”
A hospitalization model Mokdad previously put together showed Oregon might not reach 259 occupied beds from COVID-19 until Sept. 10, putting the state more than a month ahead of that forecast.
A University of California Program in Public Health professor said he was alarmed by Oregon’s hospitalization spike and that the state clearly should mandate masks.
“The fall has come early because of the delta variant,” said Andrew Noymer, who has been studying pandemics for over 20 years. “However you slice it, I do think it’s prudent to mask up again.”
So far none of Oregon’s 36 counties have mandated masks although Multnomah County beat the state Monday by recommending indoor face coverings.
As for whether Oregon’s largest county will mandate masks, health director Jessica Guernsey said there is no single metric her department is looking at. Among other things, she is tracking COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospitalizations as a whole, and wants to make sure the economic impact of business closures or capacity limits are taken into account.
“We use the mandate stick very lightly and carefully,” Guernsey said.
Still, “these things are always on the table, because this is a pandemic we have never seen before,” Guernsey said, adding that if cases and hospitalizations grow “exponentially” then the county would reconsider its approach.
While Guernsey said she does not want a county risk-based system of restrictions, she does think the state should recommend that all Oregonians wear masks indoors.
Douglas County’s top health official, Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, said the county is in a tough position because it doesn’t have the same enforcement mechanisms the state did. The county doesn’t license bars and restaurants and it doesn’t have an agency dedicated to inspecting workplaces, he said, making it unclear how the county would make sure businesses follow any rules it would put in place.
“I think we’re going to be going through a tough time over the next few weeks,” Dannenhoffer said.
— Fedor Zarkhin
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