Oregon plans to continue requiring masks in health care settings statewide at least through the 2022–2023 respiratory virus season, officials with the Oregon Health Authority said Tuesday.
Currently, health care settings—including hospitals, doctor’s offices, dentist offices, physical therapy settings, alternative medicine, and behavioral health visits—all continue to require masks. For virtually all other settings, the indoor mask mandate was lifted statewide at 11:59 p.m. March 11, 2022.
The guidance from the state comes after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month revised its guidelines to make masking optional in health care facilities in regions where it rates COVID community transmission levels as “low” or “medium.”
Currently, community transmission levels, which measure the spread of COVID-19, are rated as "high" in Multnomah County and "substantial" in Washington and Clackamas Counties, though overall "community levels" which factor in hospitalizations and are used to make masking recommendations in non-health care settings, are classified as “low” by the CDC in all three metro area counties.
The CDC said it was revising its guidance for health care settings due to the widespread availability of vaccines, treatments, and prevention methods available against COVID transmission.
But Oregon is holding off on making that change in part because modeling from Oregon Health & Science University is suggesting that infection rates may rise again this November, coinciding with the onset of flu season. OHSU’s model says that hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are expected to bottom out in early November at about 109 cases statewide before trending back up to about 250 hospitalizations by the end of the year.
During the past two years, flu season has been muted statewide, given that many people were still avoiding crowds and taking extra precautions, including mask-wearing. But this year, the health authority is expecting flu numbers to return to prepandemic levels, which health officials think might lead to overcrowded hospital systems.
Another reason that state officials gave for sticking with masking in health care settings: it’s an attempt to keep staff members healthy, given the labor shortage in that industry, which began before 2020 and was exacerbated by the pandemic.
The agency is beginning work on “a plan that will define criteria [as to] when it will consider making changes to the current health care masking requirements. Updates to the plan will be shared in coming weeks,” OHA spokesperson Erica Heartquist shared in a statement on Tuesday.
Editor's Note: This story was updated after publication to correct the metric used by the CDC to determine whether masking is recommended in health care facilities. It is community transmission, not community level, and measures the "presence and spread" of COVID-19. The story had incorrectly cited the community level metric instead, which is used to guide recommendations for non-health care settings and factors in hospitalization levels.