PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon Health Authority announced Monday the state will lift its indoor mask requirements no later than March 31.
The decision comes as health scientists expect to see a significant improvement in the number of Oregonians hospitalized with COVID-19. They believe that by late March, 400 or fewer people in the state will be hospitalized due to the virus.
Washington state leaders said they have no changes to announce at this time.
OHA said state health officials would consider lifting the general indoor mask requirement earlier than March 31 if hospitalizations decline to the levels projected by the end of March sooner than expected. Mask requirements for schools will be lifted on March 31.
OHA said it’s currently too soon to lift the indoor mask requirements because cases are still cresting and the health care system is still straining to treat the high number of patients.
“We feel like the hospitalizations are too high to lift the mask requirements right now,” said Rachel Banks, the director of OHA’s Public Health Division. “Over the past week we’ve seen our cases decrease 40% so we’re definitely moving in the right direction from omicron.”
Health officials at the Oregon Health Authority filed a new rule with the Oregon Secretary of State Monday to require people to wear masks while indoors in public places. The new rule replaces a temporary rule that expires Tuesday, Feb. 8.
Health officials say this was the only way they could extend the current temporary mask rule past its expiration date and until mask rules would no longer be needed to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
While the state extended the mandate a little longer, health officials said this gives schools the time to prepare.
“This also gives parents time to get their children vaccinated before those mask requirements are lifted,” Banks said.
Oregon has the third lowest cumulative COVID-19 case rate in the nation, OHA said. It also has the seventh lowest COVID-19 death rate since the start of the pandemic.
Oregon health officials said scientific research has shown that masks protect people from COVID-19 and they credit the state rules for helping to minimize the omicron surge.
“We should see COVID-19 hospitalizations drop by the end of March because so many Oregonians are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect themselves and each other, such as getting a booster shot or vaccinating their children. At that point, it will be safer to lift mask requirements,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist.
“Because of the data trends, the hospitalizations will be decreased enough by the end of the month we believe we can safely lift mask requirements in indoor public settings, K-12 and health settings,” Banks said.
Over the past week, health officials said the average number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases has dropped about 40% in Oregon. Hospitalizations have remained above 1,000 people per day. More than 9 in 10 intensive care unit beds and acute care beds are currently occupied by a patient in Oregon hospitals, OHA said.
Current models show hospitalizations peaking at 1,169 patients and then declining throughout February and March as infections slow.
Health experts strongly recommend people continue to wear masks even after the requirements are lifted if they are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, at high risk of COVID-19 hospitalizations, or living with people at high risk.
Businesses and employers can establish their own mask requirements after the state rules are lifted.
KOIN 6 News reached out to some school districts for comments. Beaverton school leaders said they still need some time to consult with Washington County Public Health Department and their labor partners about lifting masks within their schools.
But on Wednesday they will drop their outdoor mask rules for kids on campus.