Kate Brown.jpg

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tours a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Portland International Airport on April 9, 2021.

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday, Aug. 11, ordered face masks worn indoors in public places by everyone age 5 and older beginning Aug. 13.

During the press call, Brown said the highly contagious delta variant was pushing the virus spread to the point that each infected person was infecting eight others.

“Moving forward, for the immediate future, masks will be required for all indoor public settings,” she said.

The mandate applies to adults and children older than 5. On public transit, it also includes children older than 2.

Brown also urged, but did not mandate, wearing masks in crowded outdoor situations. She also urged private companies and other organizations to enact their own indoor mask policies.

Projected peak

Brown’s order came the day after the Oregon Health & Sciences University’s infectious disease experts forecast the state could see more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients per day in hospitals by early next month. Oregon would be about 500 staffed beds short of what it needs for all patients if the rate hit its projected peak.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said this “fifth wave” of COVID-19 to hit the state in the past 18 months is different than earlier spikes.

More than half the population is vaccinated, but the “relentless” delta variant is spreading rapidly through the estimated 1.2 million Oregon residents who are not inoculated. That group includes children younger than 12 for whom there is no federally approved vaccine.

OHA has reported patients arriving at hospitals are younger, sicker, require more care and stay longer.

“The COVID-19 situation is dire,” Sidelinger said, with the delta variant “far outpacing even the grim scenarios in our latest reported projections.”

Oregon will become the third state, along with Hawaii and Louisiana, with a statewide mask mandate.

Hospital capacity

The mask mandate is a policy U-turn for the Oregon Health Authority and Brown, who had relinquished decisions on COVID-19 restrictions to county supervisors as of June 30.

With the delta variant rapidly filling hospitals to capacity across the state, Brown had urged counties to require masks indoors in public spaces, but only Multnomah County, which includes Portland, did so.

Mutnomah County’s infection rate was reported at 5.3% in the latest OHA weekly report. That is nearly half the state average of 9.5%, which is twice the maximum 5% that epidemiologists says will keep spread of the virus under control.

Despite calls from the governor and OHA about the critical hospital situation in their areas, counties with high infection rates, low vaccination numbers and swamped health care centers were not budging.

“I felt strongly that local elected officials needed to step up and take action and preserve hospital bed capacity and protect their vulnerable constituents,” Brown said. “Clearly, that is not happening, and I’m needing to take action at this point in time.”

OHA and OHSU officials have pointed to several counties where no action was taking place despite having infection rates double the state average.

Statistics show the highest rates are concentrated in two areas: Umatilla, Baker, Union, Malheur and Wallowa counties in Eastern Oregon, and Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Curry counties in Southwestern Oregon. Crook County in Central Oregon also has twice the state rate.

Nearly all are in areas that have been resistant to masking mandates and other restrictions throughout the pandemic.

Since the uplifting of statewide mandates, Union County has seen a rise in cases along with a lull in vaccination efforts, with only 45.2% of adults fully vaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The county is vaccinating an average of 24 people per day. At this rate, it would take 267 days for the county to reach an 80% vaccination rate.

Vaccination rates were low in part because of what Allen during testimony this spring before the Legislature called “vaccine belligerence” by activists and some officials.

Events remain a go

Though Brown had ceded daily control to the counties, her emergency order dating back to March 2020, and renewed by her several times since, allowed the state to take back control at any point.

No ban on county fairs, the Pendleton Round-Up, the Oregon State Fair in Marion County, Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers and other college football games, concerts or other major events in Oregon was in the works “at this time,” Brown said.

The Pendleton Round-Up, the major event of the year in Eastern Oregon, held in mid-September, had been canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. Amid months of declining infection rates, Brown earlier this summer said “Let ‘er Buck,” a popular saying of fans of the event, which draws more than 50,000 to the region.

With the delta variant hitting Umatilla County especially hard, the pandemic was once again raising questions about the safety of holding large-scale events.

In an Aug. 10 newsletter for local officials, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said that the rising infection levels and low county vaccination levels were not going without notice in Salem.

“Putting an event in jeopardy that means $60 million to the local economy is dangerous particularly knowing that, for some of our businesses, it could be the final nail in their coffin,” Murdock wrote. “In the coming weeks, we need to dramatically increase our vaccination rates to demonstrate we are serious and that we care.”

The most recent spike in Eastern Oregon was pushed higher by Whisky Fest, an outdoor concert last month that attracted more than 12,000 people in Pendleton. But state officials did not step in to block the Umatilla County Fair this week or similar events in high-infection areas.

Brown on Aug. 10 ordered all state executive branch employees will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18.

“Delta is a different virus. It has changed everything,” she said.

— The Observer reporter Carlos Fuentes contributed to this report.

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