Oregon health officials on masks: Follow recommendations, save lives

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
July 30, 2021 12 p.m.

A top public health official is deeply concerned about the capacity of hospitals statewide as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads rapidly among unvaccinated people.

“Capacity is a huge concern for us,” said Oregon Health Authority public health director Rachael Banks.


Banks pleaded with Oregonians to follow new guidance from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wear masks in indoor public places, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

“It really is such a sincere request, a near begging, for people to follow the recommendations so that we can save lives and make sure that people who have the need for care can get it,” Banks said.

Banks and Multnomah County public health director Jessica Guernsey spoke to OPB’s Think Out Loud Thursday about the incipient wave of COVID-19 infections due to the delta variant.

By the latest count, hospitals are reporting 292 beds occupied by patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

That’s approaching the numbers of hospitalizations in April that prompted the governor to impose tighter restrictions on businesses and gatherings in many counties.


The seven-day moving average of new cases increased by 277% — almost tripling — between July 5 and July 27th.

Gov. Kate Brown and the OHA have not announced any new restrictions on business or gatherings.

But with case numbers, testing positivity rates, and hospitalizations all rising, the state of Oregon announced Thursday it will require students and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors come fall.

That’s after Multnomah County, OHA, and the CDC all issued guidance recommending that everyone — including vaccinated people — wear masks indoors again in many places.

Guernsey, with Multnomah County, said one of her key public health goals is supporting the safe in-person reopening of schools in fall.

“There are other consequences that can and have occurred as a result of kids not being in school. We know that’s tied to lots of other health outcomes,” she said.

Masking, in combination with the effort to get more adults and teens vaccinated, will help reduce community transmission of COVID-19, Guernsey said. It’s critical to protect teachers, as well as children under 12, for whom the vaccines have not yet been approved.

“School transmission does not happen in a vacuum; it happens as a result of community transmission,” she said.

Guernsey defended the state and county’s decision to recommend mask wearing in other indoor public settings, rather than mandating it.

She described it as an education first approach, giving people the facts about what they can do to protect their health and their community.