(Update: Adding more from news conference, news release)
'Together, we've managed to turn back the tsunami' - but no time frame set to ease indoor mask requirements
PORTLAND, Ore. (KTVZ) – With promising recent signs in declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the Oregon Health Authority on Tuesday lifted the requirement for outdoor mask wearing in crowded settings, which was imposed in August amid the surge in more contagious Delta variant cases.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Department of Education announced its implementation of a “test to stay” policy, which will allow students, vaccinated or not, to stay in classes and not have to be quarantined at home, thanks to the availability of free COVID-19 testing kids at schools across the state.
Oregon was the first state in the U.S. to reimplement an outdoor mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents in August as the delta variant spread. At the time, the state was in the midst of its worst surge during the pandemic.
OHA Director Patrick Allen said Tuesday's action, taken in close contact with Gov. Kate Brown and advisers, shouldn’t keep people from wearing face coverings in outdoor settings where they feel its necessary, as they “still provide significant protection,” especially for the unvaccinated, elderly or immunocompromised, or for people living with someone in those categories are still strongly recommended – or for crowded outside settings.”
“Together, we’ve managed to turn back the tsunami of new infections that very nearly swamped our health care system,” Allen said, noting that Oregon is fourth-lowest in cases and sixth-lowest in deaths in the country, amid a “slow but steady” decline. The seven-day average of 822 cases is a 64% drop from the Sept. 1 figure of 2,285, he said, also noting that eight in 10 Oregon adults have received at least one vaccine dose.
“Though the COVID landscape has markedly improved, we’re not at the point to relax wearing masks in indoor public settings,” Allen said, noting that daily cases and hospitalizations remain “at or near the peak of past surges,” with limited hospital capacity for all patients.
The latest data, he said, show that unvaccinated Oregonians are still 4.5 times more likely to contract the virus, Allen said. “We’re still seeing spread throughout the state, with the heaviest spread in counties with lagging vaccination rates.”
Allen again strongly urged the booster shots, especially for those over 50, and for Oregonians to “keep up their vigilance” over the holidays, which could determine if the improving picture improves or we all deeper into a surge.
ODE Colt Gill noted that the "test to stay" protocol is being called a "modified quarantine," as students exposed to the virus who are tested could stay in class and take part in school activities, wearing masks, due to the layers of protocols, from distancing to ventilation, but would still need to quarantine at home, away from the school setting.
“Nearly all of our recent deaths could have been prevented by vaccination,” Allen said, again urging residents to get vaccinated and the booster shots.
Gill said the testing protocols (an initial rapid antigen test, then another 5-7 days later) and eased quarantines should “greatly reduce the number of missed school days.” He noted that the test to stay protocol cannot be used after extra-curricular exposures, only for close contact with someone in the virus in school settings, where the added protocols are in place.
Still, he said of test to stay, “We really think this will be a turnaround for our students, families and educators.”
As OHA eliminates outdoor masks requirements, the Department of Education also will no longer require outdoor face coverings in school settings, and any rules will be set by the individual districts or schools. While outdoor transmission of COVID is still unlikely, it depends on the situation, Gill said, noting that tents with multiple sides are not considered a full outdoor setting.
Several reporters asked when the indoor mask mandate or other restrictions might be lifted. But state Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger noted that “this disease remains incredibly unpredictable,” pointing to the recent surges in other states.
Allen said such goals – after an easing that fell by the wayside earlier this year, when the Delta variant surged – can only be set when there’s much less disease transmission and hospitalization seen. "A bad flu season kills about 600 Oregonians in a year," he noted, and COVID-19 numbers need to decline much farther, so as not to be putting added stress on the health care system.
Allen said they are not going to now even hazard a guess on a time frame, as “the last attempts were woefully wrong,” due to the COVID-19 variant surge.
A reporter asked about OHA’s work on a “digital vaccine record.” Allen said while many Oregonians with large health care providers can get a QR code to easily prove vaccination at large sporting events, for example, others don’t have such access, and that will be the goal of the digital record system now under consideration.
Asked about people who have had difficulty getting a vaccine or booster shot of late, Allen said mass vaccination sites depended on the National Guard and that hospitals and other providers are “still swamped” with COVID cases. “We don’t have the human resources to roll out on that scale,” meaning some delays are inevitable.
Allen said the state is “not remotely close” to determining when the indoor mask mandates can be lifted, as we are “still on the verge of swamped hospitals. … We think we’re weeks away from being able to do that. We need to get to a place where hospital capacity is not critically overloaded. … It’s a judgment call.”
Sidelinger added, “We don’t want to create false expectations, and set a metric today that turns out to be the wrong metric,” which leaves some people with a feeling of “betrayal.”
“People should expect to be wearing masks indoors for some while – into next year,” he said. “We don’t know enough to set a useful target at this time.”
Oregon Dept. of Education news release:
State Officials Remove Outdoor Mask Requirements and Launch New Test to Stay Protocol for Oregon Schools, Outdoor Face Coverings Become a Local School District Decision
Reduces need for quarantining students, keeping them in the classroom
(Salem, Ore.) – The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) announced changes to Oregon’s COVID-19 prevention measures today: state health officials will lift outdoor mask requirements for large public gatherings and state education officials announced that an adequate and stable COVID-19 test kit supply has been acquired for all public and private schools in the state to be able to implement test to stay protocols.
Health officials at the Oregon Health Authority have lifted the requirement for outdoor mask wearing in crowded settings, effective immediately. The rule was implemented in August at the onset of Oregon’s most recent surge. Health officials noted that the outdoor mask rule was among the actions the state took to combat Oregon’s most recent and deadly COVID-19 surge, which has been fueled by the spread of the Delta variant, largely among unvaccinated Oregonians. The outdoor mask rule, a rule that requires people to wear masks indoors in public settings and a slow but steady rise in vaccination rates, have helped reduce transmission rates.
Health officials lifted the outdoor masks requirement in light of the overall progress Oregon has made to curb new infections and stabilize hospitalizations.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state health officer, said: “While it’s too soon to lift all mask precautions, we can remove the outdoor mask requirement for crowded public settings. We’re not seeing these settings fueling large outbreaks. Oregonians can interact with others outdoors without putting themselves and others at high risk, especially if they are vaccinated.”
Test to stay allows students to attend school in person as well as extracurricular activities (with certain restrictions), as long as they test negative. Test to stay allows students and staff to participate in in-person learning as safely as possible while lessening the burden of quarantine on students and their families, teachers and school administrators.
“We know the critical importance that school attendance has on student success,” ODE Director Colt Gill said. “Using test to stay as part of a layered set of protocols in schools will keep students and educators in classrooms, maximizing days spent in school learning, growing and thriving. It’s important to remember that if an individual is vaccinated and exposed to COVID-19, they do not have to take a COVID-19 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.
The test to stay protocol is an option available to all Oregon schools to administer. Tests are offered at no cost to participants. Student participation requires the permission of a parent or guardian. Close contact students and staff have the option of following LPHA recommendation for length of quarantine if their family does not want to participate in test to stay.
The change in the outdoor face coverings rule means local school districts, charter schools and private schools will set local requirements for use of face coverings outdoors. Extended close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual outdoors could still lead to exposure requiring quarantine, so local decision-makers need to consider the best use of physical distancing, face covering and other protocols to prevent exposure and the impacts of quarantine on student learning.
Testing is one of several components aimed at reducing the chance of spreading COVID-19 in schools along with face coverings indoors, physical distancing, improved ventilation and vaccination of students and staff. Vaccines are the single most important factor in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Being vaccinated helps keep staff in front of students and, now that vaccines are available to everyone over the age of five, it also keeps students in class as well.