The era of mandatory masks and social distancing is at an end in Oregon — at least, for most people, most of the time.
Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order last week that declared an end to Oregon’s mask mandate and social distancing restrictions either Wednesday, or when 70% of adults 18 and over were vaccinated, whichever came first. (Spoiler alert: as of Tuesday, Oregon was over 19,000 people short of that goal.)
“Oregon is 100% open for business,” Brown said at a press conference announcing her reopening plan on Friday.
The only places masks are still required by state mandate now are transit hubs like train stations and airports; on local, state and national transportation like buses and airlines; and in medical facilities. Any Oregon business, or any county, can still choose to require them. So, masks aren’t quite dead.
But in a state like Oregon, where masks were widely adopted before they were required, it’s a big change.
Wednesday also marks the start of a big shift in how Oregon plans to manage the pandemic.
”Going forward, it will be up to county commissioners, who act as local health boards, and local public health officials to intervene to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said at Friday’s press conference announcing the end of statewide restrictions. Counties will be responsible for conducting case investigations, contact tracing, and implementing social distancing and mask requirements, should the need arise.
The Oregon Health Authority will focus on collecting and reporting data and providing support to local officials through advice, contact tracing support, vaccine allocation, and by making sure adequate testing is available.
The state agency will also continue to monitor the emergence and spread of new COVID-19 variants, like the more-contagious and more-deadly delta variant, which was first found in India and has been simmering in Oregon for several months.
Although Oregon’s vaccination rate is rising, Allen emphasized that the pandemic isn’t over for unvaccinated individuals, or people with compromised immune systems who may not have responded fully to the vaccine. The unvaccinated population also includes a large portion of Oregonians: all children under the age of 12.
“Low vaccination rates in local communities are dry tinder for new COVID-19 outbreaks to emerge and variants to evolve,” Allen said. While many Oregon counties have reached the state-set benchmark of vaccinating 65% of those16 and older, others have only vaccinated about 40%.
As long as a virus is circulating, it will mutate — and it is always possible for new variants to emerge. And variants that are better at infecting vaccinated people will have an evolutionary advantage.
When the alpha variant, originally called B.1.1.7 and first discovered in the United Kingdom, came to Oregon, COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people rose dramatically, and cases in vaccinated people rose slightly. Even though unvaccinated people were somewhat protected by the vaccinated people around them, the beta variant offset that gain, and disease circulation in unvaccinated people was higher than ever. There are concerns that the delta variant could do the same, creating COVID-19 crisis hotspots.
The risk of a vaccinated person contracting COVID-19 also goes up the more they are exposed: not significantly, but catching the disease is an odds game. Vaccinated people, who only make up 2% of recent COVID-19 deaths, have much better odds.
That’s why, unlike the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization continues to recommend masks in all indoor spaces. Yes, even vaccinated people.