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Health and Medicine

Oregon sets new daily COVID case record, state epidemiologist defends indoor mask rule

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
An August 2021 file photo of staff in the intensive care unit at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital in Portland, Ore. Oregon's hospitals are treating more than 1,000 patients with COVID-19, state health officials said on Friday.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 10,947 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the state’s highest single-day total to date.

While there may be early signs the omicron wave is beginning to level off in the metro areas where it spread first, cases are surging in more rural areas, where residents are more likely to be elderly and unvaccinated, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger.

Hospitals are treating more than 1,000 patients with COVID-19, a total that’s nearing the peak during the delta surge.

“This is a tragic time for Oregon,” Sidelinger said.

Oregon doesn’t collect statewide data on how many of those infections are incidental to a person’s hospitalization versus the reason a person is hospitalized. It does track the percentage of emergency department visits for COVID-like symptoms, and that number has risen from 3% in December to above 10% more recently.

Sidelinger defended the Oregon Health Authority’s decision to use its rulemaking authority to extend the state’s mask mandate while promising the measure would sunset when the pandemic no longer threatens hospitals’ ability to deliver care to everyone who needs it.

Oregon is among a minority of states that still require masking in indoor public spaces statewide.

At a public hearing on the proposed rule on Thursday, people testifying in opposition greatly outnumbered those in favor.

Sidelinger described the mask mandate as a trade-off that has provided additional safety to vulnerable groups while allowing the state to lift — permanently — capacity restrictions and other types of limits on business activity.

Sidelinger said Oregon’s comparatively higher rates of mask-wearing and vaccination are blunting the peak of the current surge.

“I want to thank the vast majority of Oregonians who continue to take these steps,” Sidelinger said. “Your actions have helped keep the death rates from COVID amongst the lowest of the states.”

According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the death rate from the COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon — the number of people who have died per one million residents — is just half the national average.

Recent modeling suggests that the number of cases will peak in the next week or so, while hospitalizations will continue to rise until early February, peaking with around 1,500 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Sidelinger said there is no target date or data point for the state to lift the mask mandate. He said it will remain in place until hospitals, operating with staffing shortages and contingency standards, are able to resume more normal operations.

Factors the state will consider before lifting the mandate include the number of hospitalized people with COVID-19, the capacity for hospitals to provide care — including specialized care — and having a more reliable supply of antiviral medications to treat COVID-19.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.