Brown to issue new statewide mask mandate to slow spread of COVID delta variant

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Gov. Kate Brown will issue another statewide indoor mask mandate on Wednesday as Oregon deals with a surge in COVID cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant.

“After a year and a half of this pandemic, I know Oregonians are tired of health and safety restrictions,” Brown said in a statement. “This new mask requirement will not last forever, but it is a measure that can save lives right now. It will help to protect all of us, including people who are immunocompromised, and our children under 12 who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated. Masks are a simple and effective tool that will keep our schools, businesses, and communities open.”

The governor planned a Wednesday afternoon press conference to provide more details on the order. 

Brown and the Oregon Health Authority ended the statewide mask mandate for fully vaccinated people in mid-May following new CDC guidance at the time.

And in late June, the governor lifted virtually all COVID-related restrictions, which allowed restaurants and other businesses to fully reopen after more than a year of reduced capacity and social distancing requirements.

But over the summer, the delta variant of the virus has spread uncontrolled.

The state is adding more than 1,200 new cases each day and the 635 hospitalizations on Tuesday are the most ever reported during the pandemic.

In Deschutes County alone, weekly COVID cases have increased by more than 600% in the last month.

The 388 cases reported last week were the most in a single week since January.

Statewide, the virus has infected 232,436 people and killed 2,912.

St. Charles officials said during a town hall Tuesday that over the last four weeks, 100% of the hospital’s positive COVID samples were of the delta variant.

Six weeks ago, it was just 5%.

Hospital President Aaron Adams said there were 39 COVID patients currently admitted and, without interventions, that number is expected to climb significantly.

Brown pointed to new modeling from OHSU that shows without these new measures, Oregon could be as many as 500 hospital beds short of what will be needed come September.

“Oregon is facing a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations––consisting overwhelmingly of unvaccinated individuals––that is quickly exceeding the darkest days of our winter surge,” Brown said. “When our hospitals are full, there will be no room for additional patients needing care––whether for COVID-19, a heart attack or stroke, a car collision, or a variety of other emergency situations. If our hospitals run out of staffed beds, all Oregonians will be at risk.”

The governor also announced Tuesday that all executive branch employees must be vaccinated by October 18th; they will not have the option of weekly testing.

The requirement will apply to all executive branch employees, including employees working for all Oregon state agencies, and in consultation with Oregon’s statewide elected officials, employees of the Oregon State Treasury and the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, as well as employees of the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries and the Oregon Department of Justice.

Brown’s mask mandate comes just a couple of weeks after the Oregon Department of Education issued its own mask requirements for K-12 students and staff this fall.

When announced, some districts said they planned to challenge the rule.

In Prineville, the school board remains opposed to the mask rules, but has softened its stance after seeing the penalties associated with “willful negligence.”

Fines would surpass $125,000 and teachers could lose their licenses in schools where the mask rules weren’t enforced.

To some extent, Brown’s order will let off the hook several public entities considering the mask issue including Bend-La Pine Schools, the Redmond School District, and Deschutes County.

The mask discussions appear moot now with a new, over-arching state rule requiring masks indoors certain to extend beyond the beginning of the school year less than a month away.

Still, many businesses surely won’t be thrilled with the idea of having to pull their old “Masks Required” signs from storage and once again worry about being the face-covering police.

“If we all do our part, we can beat COVID-19 once and for all, keep our economy open and thriving, and return our kids to the classroom with minimal disruptions in a few weeks,” Brown said.

This is a developing story. We’ll have more tonight at 5 and 6 p.m.

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