Oregon’s new indoor mask mandate will begin on Friday, giving businesses and the public a couple more days to prepare for a return of face coverings.
But during a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials focused on the other key strategy to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“We have the power to crush this virus by getting vaccinated and wearing our masks,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist, later adding, “We need people to comply. If we can get high compliance with this new mask requirements, we can reduce the need for more hospital beds by half.”
Sidelinger joined Brown and Oregon Health Director Patrick Allen in an urgent call to arms – so to speak – to improve the state’s current vaccination rate of nearly 73%; about 57% are considered “fully vaccinated.”
“If you are unvaccinated, the risk of being sickened by the virus or ending up seriously ill, or even dying from COVID-19 has never been greater,” he said.
Brown conceded the delta variant is infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated Oregonians but said the shots are helping reduce symptoms and hospitalizations for those with breakthrough cases.
“The harsh reality is delta is a different virus,” she said. “It has changed everything.”
On Wednesday, she laid out some more details about the plan, saying “dark days are ahead” as COVID cases and hospitalizations reach record numbers.
“Until more people get vaccinated, we are all still in danger,” she said. “Vaccines are now universally available and free. The facts are very clear that unvaccinated Oregonians are the majority of patients in our ICUs. Unvaccinated Oregonians are the overwhelming majority of COVID deaths right now.”
Oregon reported more than 2,300 new COVID cases on Tuesday – a record one-day total; and as of Wednesday morning there are 665 people hospitalized with the virus – more than any time during the pandemic.
Locally, Deschutes County reported 132 new cases on Tuesday alone and St. Charles currently has 32 COVID patients admitted; seven are in the ICU and five are on ventilators.
Deschutes County is on pace for a sixth straight week of climbing cases.
St. Charles officials on Tuesday held a public forum to discuss the dire situation there, where nearly every bed is in use every day.
They worry a continued surge in COVID cases will strain the health system even further, making it impossible to care for everyone who needs it – for any reason
“If you feel like you need to wear a mask, absolutely wear a mask. If you feel like you need to get a vaccine, absolutely go get a vaccine. But we’re not going to tell you what you should be doing.” – Richard Daniells, owner of Mo’s Egg House in Redmond
The same situation is playing out in hospitals across the state where more than 90% of the ICU beds are in use.
“None of us expect we’ll want an ICU bed today, but we all expect them to be there if we, our kids or other family members need one,” Allen said. “Today those beds are much harder to come by and they will grow even more scarce if we don’t stop the flood of COVID cases.”
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod (R-Lyons) blasted the new mandate in a statement Wednesday.
“The Governor has a serious credibility problem. She obviously has no clear standards for any decision she makes. Instead, these mandates seem to be driven by left-wing activists who want a permanent pandemic to push forward unpopular policies.” he said. “Forcing vaccinations on anybody is a total violation of Oregonians’ individual rights. It won’t lead to a large uptick in vaccination, but instead segregate society by medical status.”
The delta variant accounts for “almost every” new COVID case across the state, officials said.
“If you haven’t made the choice to get vaccinated yet, delta is the game-changer that gives you a reason to reconsider,” Allen said. “Haven’t been able to find time to get a shot? Get vaccinated before the delta variant finds you. Worried about side-effects? About 1 in 5 people experience passing side-effects from the vaccines. But getting sick or hospitalized with the delta variant lasts longer than the side-effects, and the symptoms can be severe.”
The evidence is overwhelming – the vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself, Sidelinger said, presenting data that showed the COVID hospitalizations are lower where vaccination rates are higher.
Beyond that, masks will help the state reverse the current trend of rising cases.
“There is no end in sight unless we act immediately to end this trend,” Sidelinger said.
Under the governor’s new mask mandate, all Oregonians 5-years-old and older will be required to wear a mask in all indoor public spaces, “for the immediate future.” Vaccination status does not matter.
Brown also encouraged folks to wear masks in crowded outdoor public areas as well, but there’s no requirement.
Additionally, common sense should apply where it’s impossible or impractical to wear a mask such as eating or drinking, swimming, competitive sports, singing and speaking in public.
“If you are unvaccinated, the risk of being sickened by the virus or ending up seriously ill, or even dying from COVID-19 has never been greater.” – Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon State Epidemiologist
Richard Daniells, the owner of Mo’s Egg House in Redmond said he’s won’t enforce the mandate, adding “there’s a very small percentage of people, otherwise, nobody is going to die from it.”
“People are tired of this governor. They’re tired of putting a mask on,” Daniells said. “If you feel like you need to wear a mask, absolutely wear a mask. If you feel like you need to get a vaccine, absolutely go get a vaccine. But we’re not going to tell you what you should be doing.”
When asked if there would be any increased penalties from Oregon OSHA and the OHA against those who don’t comply, the governor called on residents to “do the right thing.”
“I’m asking Oregonians across the state to do their part,” she said. “To step up, to use this very simple and effective tool to stop the spread of the virus.”