End to mask mandates: Oregon, Washington doctors ‘cautiously optimistic’ as COVID hospitalizations drop

OREGON, USA (KGW) — Hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Oregon and Washington are declining, in some cases faster than expected, according to experts.

“I’m really encouraged by what I’m seeing,” said Dr. Peter Graven, director of the Oregon Health and Science University Office of Advanced Analytics, who produces a weekly COVID forecast for the state. “We saw a dramatic decline in the last week.”

As of Friday, Oregon Health Authority data showed fewer than 800 patients were in the hospital because of COVID, down from the January peak of 1,130.

“This is great because it relieves a lot of pressure on that critical resource,” Graven said.

State officials want Oregon to reach fewer than 400 COVID-related hospitalizations before relaxing the indoor mask mandate. Previous projections showed that would happen by March 31, which is why officials picked that day as the target to end the mandate.

“It looks like we may get there a couple weeks earlier than that,” Graven said.

RELATED: Here’s why Gov. Inslee is ending Washington’s mask mandate on March 21 and not sooner

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced this week his state’s indoor mask mandate will end sooner, on March 21, as long as COVID numbers continue to trend downward.

“We have a responsibility now over the next few weeks,” said Dr. Alan Melnick with Clark County Public Health.

Melnick said maintaining COVID prevention will reduce the risk of another new variant like delta or omicron emerging and triggering a renewed surge in COVID cases.

“Wherever the virus is circulating in the world, it has the opportunity to mutate and form a new variant,” Melnick said.

Oregon has not said if it will match Washington’s earlier date to make masks optional indoors. For the moment, the official word is still that the state will remove the mandate no later than March 31.

Graven does not make those rules, but he said Oregonians are on the right path toward achieving the goal and making COVID more similar to the seasonal flu. He emphasized ongoing prevention efforts will be essential to keeping masks optional:

  • Distancing when sick
  • Getting vaccinated/boosted against COVID
  • Wearing masks in high-risk settings
  • Washing hands

“If we can hang tight a little bit longer with some of those key behavior metrics into March, I think we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t have to worry about COVID at all.”

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