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Oregon reinstates outdoor mask mandate; COVID cases rise

By Sara Cline Associated Press/Report for America

PORTLAND – As Oregon shatters its record for daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to overwhelm the health system, an outdoor mask mandate was reinstated in the state on Friday.

People 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks in most public outdoor settings – including large outdoor events where physical distancing is not possible, such as festivals and concerts. The rule does not apply to “fleeting encounters,” such as two people walking by each other on a trail or in a park.

Oregon is the first state in the U.S. to re-implement an outdoor mask mandate for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents since the delta variant resulted in a surge of COVID-19 cases.

The mandate that had been previously announced is part of a growing list of statewide requirements – including an indoor mask mandate and vaccine requirements for health care workers, teachers and state employees – implemented in Oregon in an attempt to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 3,207 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Friday. The previous record, set earlier in the month, was 2,971. Since the start of the pandemic there have been 268,401 reported coronavirus cases in the state.

Over the past month, coronavirus cases, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, have overwhelmed hospitals in the Pacific Northwest state. As of Friday, 1,098 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized, beating the state’s record set the previous day by 18 people. Prior to this month, the record was 622, set in November when vaccines were not yet available.

Oregon was once described as a success story for limiting the spread of the coronavirus, after its Democratic governor imposed some of the nation’s strictest safety measures. Those restrictions were lifted June 30, and the state is now being hammered by the delta variant, which was first detected in India.

Currently there are just 40 adult intensive care unit beds available in Oregon. Currently more than 90% of the state’s ICU and hospital beds are full. Health officials say the overwhelming majority of people hospitalized are unvaccinated.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased 990% in Oregon since July 9, according to health officials.

Many hospitals have canceled elective surgeries, and some patients are housed in hallways instead of rooms.

On Friday Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will supplement medical staff at six hospitals in southern and central Oregon where there are critical staffing needs.

“The heartbreaking and harrowing accounts that nurses, doctors and staff shared with me last week in Bend and Medford speak directly to their need for immediate assistance as they work long hours caring for Oregonians filling their hospitals,” Wyden said.

On Wednesday Brown announced that “crisis teams” of hundreds of nurses, respiratory therapists, paramedics and nursing assistants are being deployed to regions of the state hardest hit by a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that have stretched hospitals to the limit.

The state has finalized a contract with a medical staffing company that will send up to 500 health care providers to central and southern Oregon, where hospitals have been slammed by a surge in coronavirus patients, most of them unvaccinated. Smaller teams will also head to long-term care facilities around the state.

In addition to the medical crisis teams announced Wednesday, Brown has dispatched about 1,500 National Guard troops to hospitals around the state to help with logistics and nonmedical tasks.