Eastern Oregon hospital prepares to loosen mask rules

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Sept. 7, 2022 1 p.m.

A hospital in John Day is looking to only lift the policy in non-patient areas.

An Eastern Oregon hospital is dipping its toes into relaxing its rules on masks.

The Blue Mountain Hospital District is planning to phase out its mask rules for staff in non-patient areas, as first reported by the Blue Mountain Eagle. The district operates Grant County’s only hospital.


District staff say they’re adjusting their policy to align with updated rules from the Oregon Health Authority. In a July 6 statement on its COVID-19 masking rules, the OHA said hospitals and other health care facilities can have staff go maskless in certain non-patient settings.

The rule is limited in scope: Only facilities where “no health care is delivered and no patients are allowed and it is physically separated from areas where patients are allowed or health care is delivered, with walls from floor to ceiling and a door that remains closed when not being used” can qualify.

The district anticipates applying the rule to places like its boardroom. Waiting rooms and doctor’s offices won’t be affected by the policy, meaning masks will still be required.

Rebekah Rand, the district’s director of emergency medical service, said the change in policy was a reflection of the district’s attempt to follow OHA guidance. When amending their own policy, she said the district simply copied language from the state’s administrative rule.

And although they intend to make the change at some point, Blue Mountain has no timeline for implementing a change to the mask policy. Rand referenced the 40 new COVID-19 cases that were announced by the Grant County Health Department on Aug. 29.


“Keeping a finger on that real-time pulse of cases in our county and our internal facility positivity rate is a really good indicator of what the big picture is,” she said. “(It’s) really hard to put a specific date, because we just don’t know what the virus is going to do and how it’s going to affect us and our community.”

Rand said she’s in regular contact with other rural hospitals in the region when considering making changes to the hospital district’s policies.

“You never want to be the person that just does the one-off,” she said. “They just go out on left field and do something and everybody is kind of like, ‘Man, nobody else is doing this change.’”

The relative isolation of Grant County’s geography means the district plays an important role for the county’s 7,000 people.

Blue Mountain Hospital District CEO Cameron Marlowe said Grant County residents would need to travel 70 miles to get to the next nearest hospitals in Burns or Baker City. The district not only operates the hospital in John Day, but also the county’s ambulance service, a primary care clinic and other health care services.

Not every hospital in Eastern Oregon is ready to take the same step as Blue Mountain. A spokesperson for St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton said in a statement that they don’t have any plans to phase out any of their mask requirements, but would continue to look at local data and state guidelines.

Oregon lifted most of its mask requirements for indoor public spaces in March, and despite subsequent surges in COVID-19 since then, the state hasn’t indicated any desire to reinstitute the mandate.

OHA spokesperson Jonathan Modie said the agency has retained the masking rule for hospitals and other health care facilities because it’s at a “different level of risk” than most other public spaces.

Modie added that OHA has no plans to lift its masking requirements for patient areas for the “foreseeable future.”