OHA to make K-12 & health care workers mask, COVID vax rules ‘permanent’

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State health officials on Friday announced they expect to move forward with “permanent” rules requiring masks indoors at schools as well as requiring school staff to be vaccinated.

On Monday, the Oregon Health Authority is also expected to file permanent rule requests requiring health care workers to wear masks and be fully vaccinated in most settings. 

The rule change allows the state to replace the temporary rules, which are only valid for 180 days and were set to expire on Friday.

Saying the rule “will maintain masking protections during the current Omicron surge,” the OHA will develop measures to determine when it will be safe to remove the school mask rule.

State health officials continue to review public comments on a similar proposed permanent rule that would continue, for now, the requirement that masks be worn in indoor public places.

That temporary rule expires on Feb. 8.

At a news conference Friday, Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., state health officer and state epidemiologist, said that while the rules are permanent, OHA can loosen or rescind them as conditions with the pandemic change, particularly with hospitalizations.

“We need to look at the number of COVID-19-positive folks in the hospital who are receiving care and the impact on the ability of the hospitals to provide care,” he said. “What we know right now is that those numbers are still increasing but are anticipated to peak soon – within the next week to week and a half – and then are anticipated to come down rather quickly.”

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Sidelinger added that the drop in hospitalizations is likely to happen quicker than during the Delta surge in fall 2021, as the length of stay and the amount of critical care needed for patients is less.

Locally, St. Charles officials have said they expected the surge to peak in a couple of weeks.

On Friday, the hospital was caring for 82 COVID-positive patients. 

“So I would anticipate, in the coming weeks to month and a half, that we will see a significant decrease in the number of people with COVID in the hospital,” Sidelinger said. “And at that time it’ll be a time to start talking about ‘Can we move from a requirement for masks in indoor public spaces to a recommendation for certain populations or in certain communities where rates are higher?’”

Sidelinger also said that actions people in Oregon take over the next several weeks will be critical to ensuring the state’s hospitals have enough capacity to meet the needs of all patients needing care.

That means getting primary and booster vaccines, continuing to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces, keeping gatherings small and staying home if you are sick or if you test positive.

“It also means extending protective measures that were enacted earlier in the pandemic requiring mask-wearing in schools and health care settings, and requiring vaccinations for school employees and health care workers and wearing masks in indoor settings,” he said.

Filing of the permanent rules follows a public comment period that began Dec. 10 and ended Jan. 24.

Written comments were accepted, and there were three public hearings – one on Jan. 20 that covered the indoor spaces masking rule, and two on Jan. 24 for the school masking and vaccination rules, and health care settings masking and vaccination rules.

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