State Lifts Outdoor Mask Mandate, Rolls Out ‘Test to Stay’ Program in Schools

The heads of the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Education on Tuesday announced loosened Covid-19 requirements for students and the public.

Students who are vaccinated will no longer need to quarantine or be tested when exposed to someone with Covid-19, and the statewide mask mandate for large outdoor crowds has been lifted.

The announcement follows Governor Kate Brown’s decision earlier this month to approve federal recommendations that children ages 5 to 11 be vaccinated. Caseloads in the state are also declining and evidence from the Centers for Disease Control suggests there’s a low risk of transmitting Covid-19 outdoors.

Covid-19 has killed 5,000 people in Oregon, Patrick Allen, director of the Health Authority, said in an online press conference with Colt Gill, director of the Education Department. The state’s vaccination rates, however, continue to climb.

But Allen declined to offer a timeline for dropping Covid restrictions altogether, adding that hospital capacity for non-Covid-19 patients will be a prerequisite for easing more restrictions.

Tests Required to Stay in School

The new school testing requirements will involve administering rapid antigen tests to unvaccinated students as soon as they are exposed to the virus or display symptoms, Gill said. When tests are negative, students will be allowed to stay in school and will be retested five to seven days later.

If they test positive, they will need to go into a seven-day quarantine. A total of 80% of Oregon schools are already using these tests, according to the Department of Education.

Unvaccinated students will be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities if they test negative, but must wear a mask for seven days until a second test shows they are not infected.

Gill said this protocol should roll out to most public and private schools right away, allowing districts to ease back on seven to 14-day quarantines.

“That’s really challenging to maintain a stable education,” he said.

Gill said the success of the new requirement depends on schools continuing to follow masking and social distancing protocols, maintaining an adequate number of tests and having enough staff to administer and handle testing. The latter, he said, will be the biggest challenge.

“Some schools may seek volunteer support. Please give up your time if you’re able,” Gill said.

As the number of vaccinated students increases, the protocol could be phased out, he added.

New Mask Mandate Effective Immediately

The lifting of the outdoor mask requirement goes into effect immediately. Allen said the current number of cases has decreased and that the requirement was unusual in the first place. Relatively few states had such a restriction.

Masks could be required outdoors at schools. Administrators will have to decide whether to require them, Gill said.

“This now falls under the school district, charter or private school leaders themselves,” Gill said.

Maureen Wolf, president of the Oregon​​ School Boards Association, said in a statement that it was welcome news.

“We support these moves and will continue to advocate for extensions of local control for our members,” Wolf said.

Gill said schools are likely to issue their protocols in the coming days. In the Hermiston School District, the district sent an email after the news conference, saying it will no longer require students to mask up outdoors.

Vaccination Rates Inch Up; Cases Dip

Oregon’s vaccination rates continue to increase, though slowly, with a seven-day average of just over 1,600 people getting a shot a day, according to health authority data.

As of Tuesday, 63% of Oregonians are fully vaccinated, and nearly 70% have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Among adults, 80% have received at least one dose.

Gill said that 17% of kids ages five to 11 have gotten at least one dose of the Pfizer pediatric vaccine, which is one-third of the adult dose. It was first approved for younger children by the federal Food and Drug Administration approved booster shots for people 18 and older on Nov. 19.

Allen said the state is not planning any mass vaccination clinics like the ones that took place at early in the year. Those required the help of the National Guard and Portland-area hospital system. However, public health officials are hosting vaccine events in the community. The public can check availability at GetVaccinated.

Over the past six weeks, Covid-19 cases have slowly declined, but state officials remain concerned about severe cases.

As of Monday, the state had just 11% of intensive care beds available out of 682 total. Benton, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties in the north have the fewest available beds, and ICU units in Josephine and Jackson counties in the south are also full.

Unvaccinated people continue to account for the overwhelming majority of hospital cases. They are more than four times more likely to contract Covid-19, according to the OHA.

Multnomah County has the most infections at the moment at 288, followed by Clackamas (204), Deschutes (190), Washington (168) and Lane (145). No other counties in the state have more than 100 confirmed cases at present.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Help us build a sustainable news organization to serve Canby for generations to come! Let us know if you can support our efforts to expand our operations and keep all of our content paywall-free. #SwimWithTheCurrent!