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Oregon lifting mask requirement for health care settings April 3; state outlines why as C.O. health care providers react

(Update: Adding video, comments from St. Charles, Summit Health, Mosaic, state epidemiologist, local clinic)

OHA move follows improvements in respiratory hospitalizations, positive tests

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Workers, patients and visitors in health care settings will no longer be required to wear masks starting Monday, April 3, the Oregon Health Authority announced Friday, prompting a revisit to one of the most controversial aspects of the personal and policy issues the pandemic spawned.

During a virtual media briefing with reporters Friday, State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said the end to the mask mandate is a positive development that reflects good news in the fight against first COVID-19, then other respiratory viruses, most notably RSV.

"Lifting the masking requirement in health care settings is a positive step in our ongoing response and battle with Covid-19," he said.

OHA announced it's rescinding provisions in Oregon Administrative Rule (OAR) 333-019-1011 that require workers in health care settings – such as hospitals, mobile clinics, ambulances, outpatient facilities, dental offices, urgent care centers, counseling offices, school-based health centers, complementary and alternative medicine locations – to wear masks. The requirement has been in effect since August 2021.

At West Bend Family Medicine, Dr. Raphael Allred told NewsChannel 21 she's excited for the mandate to end, but understands if some are skeptical and nervous about it.

"Obviously as a human being, I'm so excited not to have to wear masks at work all the time," Allred said. "But of course, as a physician, I have mixed feelings."

Allred said the clinic is looking to create its own guidelines, which could include masks in some areas, like the waiting room. She said the waiting room is one of the most transmissible places in a health care setting,

"In general, the waiting room is where you're going to find the most transmission happening," Allred said. "Just because you have people there -- especially in family medicine, you've got geriatric patients who are more at risk, then you have little children who have coughs and colds, then you have teenagers coming in with who knows what?".

OHA also announced that Executive Order 22-24 will expire next Monday. The emergency declaration gave hospitals needed flexibility to respond to a surge in respiratory infections, including COVID-19, RSV and influenza.

Sidelinger said the move to end the mask requirement comes as a result of cases in Covid-19, RSV and Influenza tapering off this winter.

"Indicators of spread of Covid-19, along with Influenza and RSV, have decreased significantly in the last few months and are showing a declining trend, which is great," Sidelinger told reporters.

Some Central Oregonians asked about the move Friday had mixed reactions to word the mask mandate will end soon.

A woman named Brandee said, "I think it's about time we let go of the mask illusion. I think oxygen is good, and I think sometimes the overdone issues around the mask is really just not necessary."

 But a man by the name of Nolan said he feels it's premature for OHA to make the announcement now.

"I think that in areas where the concentration of disease is likely to be higher, such as hospitals, it would make sense to me that one would want to perhaps continue the mandate," he said.

St. Charles Health System, operator of four Central Oregon hospitals and several clinics around the region, provided a statement to NewsChannel 21 on the next steps they're taking after the OHA's announcement.

“Our internal group of subject matter experts will meet to review the rule change announced by the Oregon Health Authority this morning and will share plans for our facilities once that review has taken place,” said Dr. Doug Merrill, chief medical officer for St. Charles Bend and Redmond.

Summit Health Oregon also provided a statement on the upcoming change:

“Given continued low rates of COVID-19, achievement of herd immunity, and updated guidance from Oregon Health Authority, as of April 3 it will no longer be mandatory for Summit Health Oregon staff, patients, or visitors to wear masks and face coverings in Summit Health offices, and general patient care areas. People at higher risk for severe disease, or who live with someone at higher risk, should still consider wearing masks in health care or any settings, to better protect themselves and those most vulnerable around them. Masks remain an effective way to reduce transmission of respiratory viruses.” - Russell Massine, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Summit Health Oregon.

At Mosaic Medical, leaders were meeting Friday to determine how to proceed, and Communications Director Bridget McGinn said they expect to have information next week as to what will happen at their clinics around the region.

Here's the rest of OHA's announcement, in full.

The decision to end statewide health care mask requirements aligns with decisions in other states, including Washington, OHA said.

Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., health officer and state epidemiologist at OHA, said the lifting of Oregon’s health care mask requirement stems from data in recent weeks showing overall decreases in circulation of the three respiratory pathogens that triggered a surge in visits to hospital emergency departments and intensive care units last fall.

Sidelinger says he understands both sides of the public's reaction. "For many, they're greeting this announcement with happiness, For others, particularly those with chronic conditions, or are immunocompromised, they're facing this decision with some anxiety."

MD Allred finished up her conversation with NewsChannel 21 cautious of the near future, "Like with every other aspect of Covid, deciding to unmask permanently brings a lot of moral and health questions, about what it's going to look like in the future, we don't know."

As of Friday, COVID-19 test positivity is at 10% and is expected to continue dropping; influenza test positivity is at 1.2%; and RSV test positivity is at 1.6% (antigen tests) and 3.5% (molecular tests).

The month-long lead-up to the ending of Oregon’s health care mask requirement gives the health care system, local public health authorities and other health partners time to prepare for the change, including adjusting policies, training and procedures that ensure continued patient safety and access.

It also gives members of the public, particularly populations at increased risk of severe disease—communities of color, tribal communities, rural communities, lower-income communities, those with underlying medical conditions, seniors, and parents of vulnerable infants – a chance to plan health care visits and protective measures.

People at higher risk for severe disease, or who live with someone at higher risk, should still consider wearing masks in health care or any settings, to better protect themselves and those most vulnerable around them. Some health care settings may continue to require masks, even after the requirement is lifted.

Masks remain an effective way to reduce transmission of respiratory viruses, OHA said. People are recommended to wear masks when they are sick, and individuals – particularly those with health conditions that put them at high risk for severe illness from a respiratory virus exposure–should continue to wear masks wherever they feel comfortable.

In order to protect themselves and their families and communities, people are strongly encouraged to stay up to date with vaccinations and boosters.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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