PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Just because the mask mandate will be lifted in Oregon no later than March 31, it doesn’t mean COVID is going away.

While case of infections continue to drop, hospitalizations are expected to remain high for the next several weeks. And though masks will no longer be required indoors, they are still being strongly encouraged in places like schools. Individuals may also choose to continue wearing masks.

The Paul Bunyan statue in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood wears a mask in the pandemic, July 2, 2020 (KOIN)

“Just because the mask requirement is going away doesn’t mean masks are going away. Many Oregonians are still at higher risk and may continue wearing masks,” said Oregon state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger. “Those who are unvaccinated, those who are immunocompromised, those who are at higher risk for complications, those who live with someone in one of these categories, many may be anxious and continue to wear a mask in a crowded setting.”

Oregon health officials said they hope by March 31 the surge level has dropped enough so that schools will be able to make independent decisions based on their experiences.

The trends are welcome but health officials said hospitals are still relying on 1300 National Guard members and 1200 medical professionals from out-of-state.

While the numbers are showing a major drop from the peak of the omicron surge, it’s still not in the rearview mirror yet.

Just this week Oregon saw more cases than the highest amount during both the delta surge and the surge in late 2020. While hospitalizations have dropped from nearly the delta peak, they are still nearly 40% higher than during 2020 when hospitals were overwhelmed.

A giant face at a home on N. Alberta in Portland wears a mask during the pandemic, May 5, 2020 (KOIN)

On February 9, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced outdoor mask requirements in the state would be lifted by Feb. 18. Washington state’s current policy requires masks to be worn at gatherings of 500 or more people. Inslee cited declining COVID hospitalizations as evidence the state has passed the worst of the omicron variant.

He announced the National Guard will no longer be at Washington hospitals, saying “that mission will be ending soon.”

Beyond Oregon and Washington, a number of other states are lifting their mask mandates soon or already have. Those states are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Rhode Island.