OHA lifts outdoor mask mandate; ODE officially launches ‘test to stay’ plan

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The Oregon Health Authority on Tuesday lifted the state’s mask mandate for large outdoor gatherings effective immediately.

“A testament to the perseverance of all Oregonians in adopting the public health interventions we know are effective in containing the spread of this disease, we’re taking this action within our legal authority and after close consultation with Governor Brown and her advisors,” OHA Director Patrick Allen said in a morning news conference.

Brown announced the outdoor mask mandate on Aug. 24th when the delta variant of COVID-19 was taking hold across the state.

It required large venues like the Hayden Homes Amphitheater, Autzen and Reser stadiums to require masks. The venues also required proof of vaccination to gain entry.

“We’re not seeing these settings fueling large outbreaks,” said Oregon’s State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger. “Oregonians can interact with others outdoors without putting themselves and others at high risk, especially if they are vaccinated.”

At the time of the initial mandate, more than 1,000 Oregonians were hospitalized with the disease; as of Tuesday, that number was down to 404.

Allen said COVID remains unpredictable, but we’re trending in the right direction.

“Over the past six weeks, we have continued to see a slow but steady decline in daily cases and hospitalizations, consistent with recent modeling projections,” he said. “Our recent #COVID19 Weekly Report noted a 12% drop in new cases for the week ending Nov. 14, although that decline has been slowing in recent days. That followed a 16% decline the previous week when we reported the fewest weekly cases since mid-July.”

Also on Tuesday, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill officially announced a new “test to stay” program designed to reduce the number of students forced to quarantine due to COVID exposure.

Gill said the program will begin immediately and hoped school districts would quickly get on board.

“My hope is that every school and local public health authority find a way to partner and implement this protocol to preserve the continuity of teaching and learning in our schools,” he said. “Let me be clear though: Vaccination is by far the best and most effective protocol for preventing the spread of COVID-19, for reducing the impact of the disease on individuals and preventing lost learning time.”

Gill also said it’s important to remember that if a vaccinated student is exposed to COVID, they don’t have to take a test to stay in school or quarantine.

How Test to Stay Works

  • Test to stay is available only for unvaccinated asymptomatic individuals who were exposed in indoor and outdoor school settings where universal masking is fully in place. Indoors and outdoor exposures are reviewed for proximity and duration of exposure. Test to stay may not be used following extracurricular exposures because masking in these settings is optional and the risk of transmission within the cohort is greater. Similarly, test to stay may not be used following community or in-home exposures.
  • Test to stay allows unvaccinated individuals to be tested twice during the 7 days following exposure. First, as soon as the exposure has been identified, with a second test occurring between days 5-7 following the exposure.
  • Test to stay is a form of modified quarantine, which allows individuals to attend school during their 7-day quarantine period. However, individuals participating in test to stay are expected to maintain quarantine outside of classroom settings.
    • Students and staff participating in test to stay may participate in school-related extracurricular activities during their 7-day quarantine period but must wear face coverings at all times during these activities.

Local school district officials this week said they were waiting on more information from the state before commenting on the plan.

In the last month, more than 1,100 students and staff in Bend-La Pine Schools were forced to quarantine due to COVID exposure.

In Crook County, 99 students are currently quarantined and school district spokesman Jason Carr welcomed the new program.

“We definitely agree with the test-to-stay option as we believe the current quarantine requirements are too onerous,” he said. “This will keep more students in the classroom and take a major load off our nurses.”

In Redmond, officials said they wanted some clarification from the state because they said information presented Friday was different from Tuesday’s announcement.

“That said, we plan to follow whatever guidance for the “test to stay” program as soon as we understand it more clearly and have time to put protocols in place (such as parental permission forms, etc),” said Gina Blanchette, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Charan Cline. “We are excited to implement anything that helps keep students and staff safely in school and in-person learning.”

Gill said he and OHA officials meet constantly and there has not been any discussion yet on removing the mask mandate for students and staff inside schools.

He said the masks were helping Oregon students stay in class because it was reducing the spread of COVID.

With kids in close settings for hours each day, he said that’s a recipe for the spread of COVID and the state is “clearly not in a place to remove face coverings at an indoor setting.”

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