Why Oregon may be one of last states to lift mask mandates

Oregon is now on track to become one of the last states in the nation to scrap its mandatory mask rules by the end of March. And that’s sparking complaints from a growing portion of the pandemic-weary public that it’s not soon enough.

Determining when to abandon mask requirements is the subject of fierce debate, with disagreement among big names in the epidemiological and medical communities. But it’s clear the country is at a tipping point.

Despite plummeting omicron infections, federal officials insist now is not the time. Yet many states long ago abandoned required masking and even some of the most cautious jurisdictions, such as California and New York, this week announced at least a partial end to mandates.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Oregon officials defend their approach. They say it’s wiser to blunt omicron spread and dramatically reduce hospitalizations before easing up, even if it requires a few extra weeks of vigilance.

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger acknowledged that setting the March 31 end date for public spaces and schools should help motivate residents to continue abiding by the state’s mask mandate. Masking requirements in public spaces could be lifted even sooner if coronavirus hospitalizations, now at 947, drop to 400 before then.

“A requirement needs to be followed in order for it to be effective — so we take that into account,” Sidelinger told The Oregonian/OregonLive this week, days after announcing a sunset for the state’s mask mandates.

And if that’s not enough motivation, Sidelinger said he thinks it’s unlikely a masking requirement would return. That’s a bold statement, given Oregon previously lifted masking requirements last summer only to reinstate them as the delta and omicron variants emerged and led to record infections.

“The tools we have in front of us now are different than they were six months ago, than they were 12 months ago,” Sidelinger said, noting that COVID-19 treatments such as monoclonal antibodies are increasing in availability and he expects vaccination and booster rates to climb.

Although Sidelinger said there’s always the possibility that a new variant might emerge and prompt a new surge, he added, “right now, I don’t see a mask requirement would be needed again.”

Attitudes about wearing masks have shifted dramatically since the start of the pandemic, when 38 U.S. states imposed statewide mask mandates, including on their schools. But by the start of the year, those numbers had been whittled down to 10 with indoor mandates and 13 with mask requirements for schools.

This past week, 10 states — including Oregon — announced end dates for some or all of their mask rules. Although several states, including Washington, haven’t yet said when they’ll shed indoor masking, Oregon is tied for last among those that have.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said last week the state’s mask mandate for large outdoor gatherings would end Friday. He’s expected to announce some details this week for when the state will end mask requirements that cover schools and businesses.

Oregon officials point out that the omicron variant peaked in the state nearly two weeks after the first regions of the country, such as New York, so the local case rate is still comparatively high. Oregon has seen average daily cases fall by 65% since its January peak while hospitalizations are down only 16%.

Sidelinger said, compliance-wise, extending the mask mandate another six weeks or so might not have been possible in many states.

“The protective measures that people are taking for themselves, for their loved ones, has been a little different in Oregon,” he said. “The West Coast in general has taken a more cautious approach. … And I think overall you can see that in the numbers. We’ve done well.”

Peter Graven, an Oregon Health & Science University data scientist who creates a weekly forecast for the numbers of patients with COVID-19, said he has run a simulator showing if Oregon ditched its mask mandates immediately, hospitalized patients might bump up slightly and remain above 1,000 for several more weeks.

“Talk to any hospital worker and they’ll say, ‘You mean we’re going to stay above a thousand for another month because you’re not willing to hang tight for six more weeks? That is terrible timing,’” Graven said.

Yet politicians and public health officials in other states, perhaps responding to public sentiment, are unfazed by the timing.

One recent national poll showed 46% of respondents advocated for a complete return to pre-pandemic life, stating “we need to learn to live with it and get back to normal.” On the flip side, 43% of respondents called for more vaccinations, masking and testing. Democrats are far more likely to approve of the latter approach, meaning Oregon and especially Portland, as a heavily Democratic enclave, might be more likely than not to stick with some COVID-19 precautions, such as wearing masks even after the state no longer requires them.

Oregon has a far higher rate of masking than the national average. Week after week for the past month, more than 80% have reported abiding by the state’s mask mandate. Nationally, about 60% say they are wearing masks, and that rate has been falling for the past two weeks. But even so, Oregon officials have been inundated in recent weeks with emails and public comment urging them to abolish the mandates.

Groups of parents and students protested outside schools or administrative headquarters in a smattering of districts this week — including Gresham-Barlow, Salem-Keizer, Sherwood and Scappoose, the last two with a small number of high school students encouraged by their parents trying to squeeze past administrators posted at entrances and head to class maskless.

Yale infectious-disease expert Gregg Gonsalves recently lamented a shift in attitudes to embrace the idea of COVID-19 as endemic when it’s not.

“People who were scrupulous about following public health advice in 2020 are now too tired, frustrated, and fed-up to care,” Gonsalves wrote recently in an opinion piece in The Nation. “Those still masking, doing some social distancing, trying to do their part to stem the tide of the pandemic are being treated as if they are holdouts in a war that is long over.”

The CDC, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics say now is not the time to loosen mask guidance. These three organizations haven’t put forth any recent metrics that would define when they consider it safe to stop wearing masks.

Respected experts — such as Harvard University’s indoor air researcher Joseph Allen, Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha and George Washington University’s Dr. Leana Wen — say they think guidance from some government sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is out of touch and the country is entering a phase where mask mandates aren’t needed.

Others are even more pointed.

Dr. Tracy Høeg, an epidemiologist at University of California-Davis, said she believes a well-fitted, N95 mask can be effective in reducing transmission. But she hasn’t been convinced there’s evidence that mask mandates do any good, a hotly debated topic and one with which Oregon officials disagree. She suspects the effectiveness of mandates is undermined by poor compliance among adults and schoolchildren alike, and by low-quality and loosefitting masks.

“Thinking that the cloth masks are somehow going to provide protection especially when we’re talking about hours a day in a row of being with the same people, it seems kind of delusional to me,” Høeg said.

On the other side, Dr. Esther Choo, an emergency physician at Oregon Health & Science University, said she agrees with the notion that “public health measures should turn on quickly and turn off slowly.” But she’s concerned lifting mask mandates will make it less likely they’re reinstated again if needed, if another surge is brought on by a new variant.

She also is worried for elderly people and people with underlying medical conditions, who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 even if they’re fully vaccinated and boosted. In a recent tweet, she wrote: “Ever feel like the stock value of human life is plummeting?”

Choo told The Oregonian/OregonLive she is running across what she describes as an uncaring attitude in some who don’t want to wear masks and won’t get vaccinated because they’re young and healthy. That attitude: “I won’t do anything, even small things, to ensure your life is protected,” she said.

Choo plans to wear her mask for the foreseeable future when in indoor public spaces, even after the mandate is lifted.

Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said he also might continue wearing his mask.

Although he is middle-aged and healthy, he said, he lives with a relative who, though boosted, is in her 80s. When he’s in indoor public spaces, he also will take stock on whether other people are wearing masks — and wear his mask as a “courtesy” if he sees many others covering up.

“If the vast majority of people in my community continue to wear masks,” he said, “I will continue to do so as well, because those are people who are concerned about their own safety or who they return home to.”

Information from The Seattle Times archive was included in this report.

Aimee Green: