Oregonians are on the verge of life after face masks.
With the state closing in on its goal that 70% of the population receive COVID-19 shots, officials announced Friday they are preparing to lift most pandemic restrictions by June 21. That would relax mask requirements for all Oregonians, regardless of vaccination status. Under the pending rule change, masks would only be mandatory at airports, on public transit and in health-care settings.
Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said the state also intends to end mandatory social distancing and occupancy limitations for restaurants and other businesses.
“The data clearly show that if you are fully vaccinated, you can begin to put the pandemic behind you,” Allen said. “You can have confidence that a get-together with friends, a family birthday celebration at a restaurant or a day at work alongside others won’t put you at a high-risk to contract or pass COVID-19.”
More than 66.2% of Oregonians over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, putting the state close to the 70% benchmark.
Relaxed rules — the biggest shift toward normalization since the pandemic hit Oregon 15 months ago — would take effect once an additional 127,000 people get their first dose of the vaccine. The Oregon Health Authority estimates that we will reach that goal by June 21 at the latest.
But the buoyant news from Friday’s weekly COVID-19 briefing came with plenty of caveats and words of caution.
Officials said the pandemic is far from over. Older people who are fully vaccinated remain at greater risk of so-called “breakthrough” coronavirus infections than younger people. And the threat of serious illness and death remains for the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who have not been vaccinated.
“A stark picture has emerged,” Allen said. “There isn’t one pandemic in Oregon, there are two: One is a pandemic that is dying out among people who are vaccinated. The other is a pandemic that is raging as fiercely as ever among people who are unvaccinated.”
As the rate at which people receive COVID-19 vaccinations slows, the Oregon Health Authority is taking steps to make vaccines more accessible for eligible Oregonians.
It has asked four of its pharmacy partners — Rite Aid, Albertsons/Safeway, Walgreens and CVS — to extend their pharmacy hours until midnight on each of this month’s remaining three Fridays. Allen expressed hope that the extended hours will help make vaccines more accessible for some people.
“We know many people who haven’t chosen to get vaccinated yet aren’t vaccine-resistant, just vaccine-inconvenient,” he said. “They have little time outside the demands of family, multiple jobs or other commitments.”
Allen also highlighted progress the state has made at closing the vaccine equity gap. Over the past week, vaccination rates among Oregon’s Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color, increased by about 5%, while vaccinations for white Oregonians increased by about 2.5%. Still, these communities remain underrepresented in the state’s current vaccination totals.
Gov. Kate Brown billed the reopening as a return to something like normal. Most state COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted: That means no capacity limits in stores, restaurants, churches and gyms, going maskless in movie theaters and the return of large summer events like festivals.
“The Pendleton roundup? Yes, that too,” she said.
It’s also going to mark a shift in Oregon Health Authority strategy, Allen said. He said state agency will leave “crisis mode” and enter “recovery mode,” transferring its focus on supporting individual counties with their pandemic and outbreak responses.
Brown also said she expects to lift restrictions on schools and child care settings and allow them to operate at full capacity. However, since children under 12 all remain unvaccinated, some extra precautions may still be needed.
For the fifth consecutive week, COVID-19 cases have declined. But that decline in cases doesn’t mean that life is safer for all Oregonians — just for vaccinated ones. The “two pandemics” Allen referred to can be seen in the way hospitalizations are playing out at this stage of the pandemic.
Of all new COVID-19 hospitalizations between March 1 and May 31, 98% were people who were unvaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated, and 94% of COVID-19-related deaths were of unvaccinated people. At the same time, cases and hospitalizations have been declining as more people get their COVID-19 shots.
While the number of cases is declining, the case rate among unvaccinated people remains extremely high. That reflects Oregon’s pursuit of herd immunity. It won’t be reached until there are enough immune people to form protective bubbles around the non-immune, and to also more fully protect vaccinated people from the unlikely but real threat of catching COVID-19.
The spread among unvaccinated Oregonians is “resulting in comparable impacts to what was experienced during the darkest days of the pandemic,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
In addition to people who resist vaccination and those who haven’t had an opportunity to be vaccinated yet, some people have been medically advised against COVID-19 vaccination, including some who are immune compromised. And some people are too young to be eligible for vaccines.
This unvaccinated spread is particularly clear in Deschutes County, where over 65% of residents have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but new cases and hospitalizations remain high. For the last month, intensive care unit beds in the region have been full or near-full. Even now, Deschutes County is seeing approximately 249 new cases per 100,000 residents, which, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s own metrics, means transmission is “widespread.”
Dr. Louis D’Avignon, a pulmonary critical care physician in the ICU at St. Charles Health System in Bend, said that the majority of its patients are younger. That’s partly due to high vaccination rates among older Oregonians, but also because of new, more contagious, more virulent variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Some of these new variants, including the one driving transmission in Oregon, are much better at causing severe illness in young people.
“It’s not just about the numbers,” D’Avignon said during Friday’s news conference. “We have had, you know, very tragic cases that have been very trying for our patients, their families, and our staff.”
D’Avignon related the case of an unvaccinated, athletic 50-year-old who died from COVID-19 after several weeks in the ICU.
D’Avignon also reflected on how high hospitalization rates have made it difficult to provide the best care possible for COVID-19 patients.
“We had to move out a young person, less than 40 years old, to get ECMO therapy out of state because all of the ECMO beds in our state are taken up,” D’Avignon said. ECMO is a life-saving treatment that cycles a person’s blood through a membrane that functions almost like an artificial lung. Patients who receive ECMO are much more likely to survive.
“They had to be shipped out,” D’Avignon reiterated.
There may be two pandemics in Oregon, but there is only one state. And in just a few weeks, the whole state — regardless of county vaccination rates or the amount of virus circulating — will go back to normal. There will be no capacity limits at venues, no social distancing, and no mask requirements in all but a few places.
That will put unvaccinated Oregonians at a much higher level of risk. While wearing a mask helps protect against contracting COVID-19, people are most protected when everyone around wears masks.
“I’m obviously very concerned,” Brown said. “These communities tend to be very medically and economically vulnerable and Dr. D’Avignon very clearly articulated the impacts of COVID on folks who are not vaccinated.”
The governor asked people to be respectful of those who choose to wear masks, and said unvaccinated people may need to take additional precautions in public.
“I think as we move forward and we hit that target of 70% of individuals who have received at least one dose of vaccine, we will have significant protection across the state,” Sidelinger said. But he acknowledged: “That doesn’t mean that every community in every individual is protected.”
The threshold for herd immunity — the point at which we will have vaccinated enough people to also protect the unvaccinated — is thought to be between 70% and 85% of the entire population, depending on how contagious local COVID-19 variants are. And while Oregon is closing in on its vaccination goal, that doesn’t mean it’s close to calling the pandemic officially over, Sidelinger said.
“70% is not the end,” he said. “70% is the beginning of the next step.”