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Oregon health officials recommend wearing masks indoors

July 28, 2021 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — In response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Oregon and updated national guidance calling for masking measures to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, state health officials announced Tuesday they are recommending that people wear a mask in public indoor settings — including those who are fully vaccinated.

The announcement occurred the same day that the Oregon Health Authority reported 1,032 new and presumed COVID-19 cases, the state’s highest daily case count since January based on recent data.

“Today’s reported sharp rise in confirmed and presumptive cases and in hospitalizations in Oregon are sobering reminders that the pandemic is not over, especially for Oregonians who remain unvaccinated,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist and state health officer.

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As cases continue to rise across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges.

Citing new information about the variant’s ability to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

The new guidance follows recent decisions in Los Angeles and St. Louis to revert to indoor mask mandates amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have been especially bad in the South. The country is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

On Tuesday, Oregon health officials announced that their recommendations apply statewide and not just in areas with high infection rates.

The possibility of reimplemented restrictions — including mask mandates, capacity limits, county risk levels that dictate restrictions and distancing requirements — that were lifted by Gov. Kate Brown on June 30 has also always been a possibility.

During a public Q&A this month, Sidelinger said that if cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge then “nothing is off the table” when it comes to the possibility of reinstating restrictions.

Health officials continue to reiterate that the greatest protection against COVID-19 is the vaccine. However in Oregon, around 29% of adults have yet to be vaccinated. Health officials warn the increased spread of the delta variant poses a great risk for unvaccinated people. Last month, the health authority reported that 92% of coronavirus cases in June and 94% of coronavirus deaths occurred in unvaccinated Oregonians.

In a sign of slowing demand for the vaccine, last week the state’s first mass vaccination clinic at the Oregon State Fair and Exposition Center in Salem closed.

In addition the Oregon Health Authority reported on Tuesday that nearly 93,000 doses of vaccine have been thrown away after expiring due to non-use.

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The impacts of the virus on unvaccinated people are apparent when looking at high-infection rates in counties with low-vaccination rates.

Last week, in rural Umatilla County where 43% of adults are partially or fully vaccinated, the areas coronavirus-test positivity rate surpassed 14%.

In one-third of Oregon’s counties — many rural — less than 50% of the adult population is vaccinated.

“The highly contagious Delta variant has increased tenfold in the past two weeks in Oregon, and it is now estimated to be associated with 80% of the new cases in Oregon,” Sidelinger said. “OHA continues to encourage all Oregonians who are eligible to make a plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

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Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.