A seemingly battle-worn Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday defended her decision to reinstate Oregon’s indoor mask mandate this Friday — saying she didn’t realize until recently that virtually none of the county leaders she’d entrusted to change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic planned to do a thing to slow record-breaking coronavirus spread and hospitalizations.
Brown said it became clear after a meeting last week with county commissioners that “local elected officials were not willing to make the tough decisions – and I needed to make the decision to preserve our hospital bed capacity and ensure that we have adequate staffing to take care of people who need emergent care.”
It’s unclear why Brown wasn’t aware of the deep-rooted, unwavering political resistance in many parts of Oregon for enacting any sort of disease control measures even as cases and hospitalizations skyrocketed. Brown as recently as Monday continued to call for action by local leaders, with only Multnomah County adopting mandatory masking.
Brown’s decision to renew a statewide indoor mask mandate six weeks after lifting it underscored the latest twist in a lingering pandemic now being fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. Public health officials expressed their greatest sense of alarm since the particularly deadly fall surge, acknowledging the situation is expected to get worse in the weeks ahead, particularly among the unvaccinated Oregonians most susceptible to severe COVID-19.
“The unrelenting delta variant is sweeping through our communities and there are no immediate signs that this rising tide will subside any time soon unless we act immediately to reverse this dangerous trend,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist.
He stressed the importance of masks and vaccinations.
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The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 again set a new pandemic record Wednesday, at 665, with 172 people requiring intensive care.
And cases continued to surge, with 1,991 new or presumed infections announced Wednesday and another day of test positivity rates above 10%.
Brown now finds herself at the forefront of governors jolted into action, with Oregon becoming only the third state in the nation to soon require masks in all indoor public spaces statewide behind Louisiana and Hawaii. Nevada’s governor also has mandated masks in most counties.
The issue of mask requirements has been red hot — with some residents swearing they’ll never put one on again and launching scathing criticism at Brown. Others say she waited far too long to act until Oregon’s numbers began to break records.
Starting Friday, Oregonians age 5 and older must cover up in all indoor public spaces. An existing requirement that residents 2 and older must mask on public transportation remains in place.
In addition to masks, Brown also is requiring approximately 41,000 state employees in the executive branch — which excludes legislative or state courts workers — to show proof of full vaccination as early as Oct. 18.
The Oregon House Republican caucus described both of the new requirements set by Brown, a Democrat, as “oppressive.” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, of Lyons, criticized the governor Wednesday for what he characterized as a lack of clear standards.
“Instead, these mandates seem to be driven by left-wing activists who want a permanent pandemic to push forward unpopular policies,” Girod said in a statement.
Sounding weary and perturbed at times that she’d been put in the position nearly 18 months after the state’s first case was diagnosed, Brown fielded a barrage of questions from reporters Wednesday during her first news conference about COVID-19 in more than six weeks.
Often, Brown sidestepped answers — declining to say directly if she regretted reopening Oregon and lifting the mask mandate June 30, even though at the time experts were predicting the delta variant would become responsible for most infections in the United States in a matter of weeks.
“Look, at that point in time, in terms of the pandemic, local authorities — particularly county commissioners — had been asking me for months, over a year, to initiate local control,” Brown said.
She added: “We were at a point in the pandemic that we needed to move forward.”
In the weeks that followed Oregon’s reopening, forecasts began sounding the alarm. A July 23 forecast from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted exponential spread into the fall. Oregon’s crisis, however, has already exceeded some of those grim projections — with cases increasing nine-fold and hospitalizations more than six-fold since the governor lifted the mask mandate.
Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen defended the lack of earlier intervention, saying a portion of the public has become unreceptive to warnings and wouldn’t have followed preventative measures a month ago, even if the governor ordered them.
“Even today, with what we know today with where our hospitalizations are, with the amount of disease in the state, the actions that the governor is taking are being characterized by some as ‘oppressive,’” Allen said. ” … A month ago, with the reality on the ground being what it was, we would have had a huge problem with trying to get some people to follow those” mandates.
Brown didn’t directly answer questions about whether the resurrected mask mandate will be enough or if more mandates might be warranted. She said if 85% of Oregonians abide by her mask decree, Oregon will be short 250 of the staffed hospital beds needed to treat patients for any reason, instead of the 500-bed deficiency predicted by September.
Brown also didn’t explicitly say whether she is considering the reintroduction of capacity limits on indoor restaurants, bars and gyms or potential closures. But she hinted that might be on the table if needed.
“My goal is to get kids back into the classroom on a full-time basis and keep them safe and to keep our businesses open,” Brown said. ” … We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and I will take the actions that I need to keep Oregonians safe, healthy and alive and make sure that we have adequate hospital capacity.”
She did say she has no plans to create a statewide vaccine verification system, which could be used to allow only vaccinated people into restaurants, stadiums or other businesses.
The association representing the state’s hospitality industry, with more than 150,000 employees, stated no overt objection to Brown’s mask mandate. But Jason Brandt, president of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said in a statement that the mask mandate “must not lead to any other statewide business regulations. The industry is nowhere near recovery and has a long road ahead.”
Brown said the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division has the same power it has had in the past to fine businesses that don’t comply with her mask order, but she won’t call upon local or state police to enforce mask usage among the populace.
“I’m asking Oregonians to take personal responsibility,” Brown said.
She urged everyone to do their part.
“I know Oregonians are tired of wearing masks,” she said. “I certainly am, too. But every time someone wears a mask, that’s one more unvaccinated kid we’re protecting. That mask could keep your best friend or loved one out of the hospital. Masks show our support for doctors and nurses who are working so incredibly hard right now.”
— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee
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