SALEM, Ore. — The timeline to repeal Oregon's indoor mask mandate has accelerated again in response to faster-than-expected declines in COVID hospitalization rates. The state will now lift its mask rules at 11:59 p.m. March 11.
Governors Kate Brown of Oregon, Jay Inslee of Washington and Gavin Newsom of California jointly announced the repeal date for all three states Monday morning.
Oregon health officer and state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger and Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill discussed the updated timeline at a press conference Monday afternoon, and Inslee held a separate press conference to discuss how the policy changes will impact Washington.
Watch the full press conference from Sidelinger and Gill:
California lifted its mask rule for vaccinated people in indoor public spaces earlier this month, but it has continued to require masks for unvaccinated people indoors and universal masking in schools. Oregon and Washington have both maintained universal masking in schools and indoors.
California's indoor mask requirement for unvaccinated people will end on March 1. Oregon and Washington will end their indoor mandates for everyone — and all three states will drop their school masking rules — at the end of the day on Friday, March 11.
Oregon state health officials previously said they wanted to wait to lift the mask mandate until the state's hospitalization rate drops to a pre-omicron level of about 400 patients.
The state originally announced a mask end date of March 31, based on when Oregon was projected to reach the 400-patient threshold. That date was later pushed forward to March 19 when hospitalizations began declining faster than expected. Washington previously announced a repeal date of March 21.
In his latest forecast, Oregon Health and Science University Office of Advanced Analytics director Dr. Peter Graven said he expected Oregon to fall below 400 patients by March 12. The count stood at 479 patients as of Monday, Sidelinger said.
"At the present pace, hospitalizations could fall below pre-omicron levels by next week," he said, although he added that the mask repeal date is unlikely to be pushed any farther forward even if cases decline faster, because school districts and communities still need time to prepare for the transition.
The Oregon Department of Education will release updated guidance for school districts later this week, Gill said, outlining how to handle quarantine, testing and contact tracing procedures once masks are no longer mandatory.
After March 11, masks will continue to be required in certain places such as health care settings, airports and public transit in accordance with federal requirements, but individual counties and school districts will be free to set their own policies everywhere else.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that it would ease its masking guidelines for counties where COVID hospitalizations rates are low, which accounts for more than 70% of the U.S. population, although it would continue to advise masks in high-risk areas.
Those guidelines are not binding, meaning they do not overrule state requirements or the federal requirements for health care and transportation settings.
The CDC's previous guidance called for universal masking in counties where the virus had a high rate of spread, which continues to include the vast majority of U.S. counties, but most states have already repealed their own mandates — Washington and Oregon are among the last to maintain them.
Oregon health officials have similarly pivoted from focusing on case rates to hospitalization rates during the omicron wave, arguing that those numbers give a better sense of how the pandemic is impacting the health care system due to omicron's high transmissibility but relatively lower rate of severe illness.
Oregon's daily new COVID case count jumped to unprecedented levels during the omicron wave, reaching more than 10,000 cases on five separate days in January. Before omicron, the state's highest single-day case count was 3,207 at the peak of the delta wave in August.
Hospitalization rates went up as well, but not at the same clip — the omicron wave peaked at 1,130 hospitalizations in Oregon earlier this month, falling just short of the delta wave peak of 1,178 in early September.
Even under the new CDC guidelines, most of Oregon's counties are currently still in a high-risk category, Sidelinger said, which is why the mask mandate needs to stay in place for time being, but many counties are expected to shift to lower risk categories in the next two weeks.
A few counties could continue to be higher-risk after March 12, he said, but it will be up to local officials to take that into account to guide their decisions. Oregon is using statewide hospitalization numbers to determine when to lift the statewide mandate, he said, in part because the state's hospital system is very interconnected.