SALEM, Ore. — Oregon will lift its mask mandates on March 19 for indoor public spaces and schools, 12 days earlier than the previously scheduled date of March 31, state officials announced Thursday.
In a press release, the Oregon Health Authority said the original date was chosen because that was when the state's hospitalization levels were projected to have declined to a pre-omicron level of fewer than 400 COVID-19 patients at a time.
Hospitalization rates have declined faster than expected, the agency said, and are already down 48% from the peak of 1,130 in late January. The latest forecast from Dr. Peter Graven, director of Oregon Health and Science University's Office of Advanced Analytics, projects that Oregon will reach the 400-patient threshold by March 12.
The latest modeling from Oregon Health and Science University last week projected that Oregon would reach the 400-patient threshold around March 20, and
New daily reported infections have also plummeted in Oregon, from a peak of 10,940 on Jan. 20 to 1,160 on Tuesday. New cases were hovering at around 800 per day before the omicron surge began in December.
“We are able to take this important step, earlier than anticipated, because of the collective diligence and the shared sacrifice that people in Oregon have demonstrated in getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting their gatherings,” Oregon health officer and state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said in a statement.
The move brings Oregon's timeline more in line with Washington's. Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that his state's indoor mask mandate will expire on March 21.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also announced on Thursday that she would lift the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration on April 1.
"Lifting Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency declaration today does not mean that the pandemic is over, or that COVID-19 is no longer a significant concern," she said in a statement. "But, as we have shown through the Delta and Omicron surges, as we learn to live with this virus, and with so many Oregonians protected by safe and effective vaccines, we can now protect ourselves, our friends, and our families without invoking the extraordinary emergency authorities that were necessary at the beginning of the pandemic."
Most of Oregon's original pandemic emergency measures were lifted in June of last year as vaccines became widely available and case levels receded, but the mask mandates were reinstated in August when the more-transmissible delta variant arrived.
Oregon school districts will need to decide for themselves whether to maintain their mask rules after the mandate is lifted, and state officials previously said the March 31 date was intended to give districts enough time to make plans for the transition.
However, the OHA said on Thursday that it received feedback from school districts around that state that they could be ready sooner.
The Oregon Department of Education is working to develop updated safety protocols for quarantine, contract tracing and testing for the current phase of the pandemic, according to agency director Colt Gill.
“These guidelines will continue to support our North Star goal of providing in-person learning for every student, all day, every school day and will focus on specific supports for students, staff, and families that may be at more risk from COVID-19 than others in the school population," he said in a statement.
Masks will still be required in certain places such as health care facilities after the mandate expires. State health officials will still recommend that people at higher risk from COVID-19 keep wearing masks in indoor public settings after the mandate is lifted, and will also still recommend universal masking in schools, according to the press release.