Oregon Gov. Kate Brown acknowledged Friday that ending a statewide mask mandate will place greater risks on already-vulnerable people and communities. But during a contentious news conference, she stood firm on her decision to lift the mandate once the state reaches its vaccination goal.
Oregon currently plans to lift most restrictions once 70% of the state’s adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination. As of Thursday, 67.2% of eligible adults were vaccinated.
At Friday’s briefing, Brown reiterated that she is “very concerned” about communities and populations that have not yet had sufficient access to the vaccine. Although progress has been made closing the vaccine equity gap, the percentage of people vaccinated varies wildly from county to county — and even ZIP code to ZIP code.
Lane County passed a vaccination milestone this week: Over 65% of its eligible adults have received a first dose. Clackamas County is not far behind, Brown said. Once that benchmark is passed, Lane and Clackamas counties can move into “lower-risk” restrictions. Benton, Deschutes, Hood River, Lincoln, Multnomah and Washington counties are the only other counties to have reached that goal.
That means 29 of Oregon’s 36 counties have not yet reached that particular benchmark. But when the state hits the 70% vaccination rate benchmark, which is expected to happen sometime in the next few weeks, they will also reopen, regardless of vaccination levels and the amount of COVID-19 spreading locally.
“We still have more work to do to ensure all Oregonians are healthy and protected from COVID-19,” Brown said.
Brown announced additional incentives to encourage the vaccine-hesitant to go get their first shot. Anyone who receives their first vaccine dose Friday at the drive-through vaccination site near Portland International Airport will be given a $100 gift card, while supplies last. The same offer will be available Saturday at the mass vaccination clinic at the Oregon Convention Center.
Although many businesses could soon reopen fully, the economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic still lingers. Brown said she has extended Oregon’s foreclosure moratorium until Sept. 30.
She was unable to extend the eviction moratorium, which will expire at the end of June.
Oregonians currently have until next year to pay off any late rent accrued between April 2020 and June 2021. But all renters will need to pay their July rent, or face eviction. Brown encouraged those who might be unable to pay rent this July to apply for federally-funded rent assistance, through oregonrentalassistance.org.
The number of new COVID-19 cases went down across Oregon for the sixth straight week. Deaths and hospitalizations have also continued to decrease.
Critical Questions About Ongoing Risk
Many of the reporters’ questions at Brown’s Friday’s press conference focused on her decision to lift Oregon’s mask mandate once 70% of adults in the state have received their first dose.
When that benchmark is reached, only about half of all individuals in the state will have received their first vaccine dose, and fewer than half will be fully vaccinated. And 16 Oregon counties have yet to give first doses to half of their adult residents. The mask mandate and social distancing measures that have been credited for helping limit disease spread for much of the pandemic will be removed, and it will still be some time before enough people will have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity. That’s the threshold at which enough people have become immune to COVID-19 that it is unlikely to continue spreading.
Although masks do provide some protection to the wearer, they are much better at preventing someone from spreading disease than they are at preventing someone from contracting it. Without a mask mandate, unvaccinated Oregonians will need to trust that the maskless around them have been vaccinated and do not have COVID-19.
Brown and state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger both acknowledged that reopening will increase risk for unvaccinated people — including those who are not willingly in this category.
“I have a friend who is struggling with cancer right now,” Brown said. “They are extremely vulnerable, and they wear a mask because it is their best protection against COVID-19.”
But right now, those individuals are also protected by social distancing measures and masks, which reduce the amount of virus a person exhales. When mask mandates lift, Sidelinger suggested, vulnerable Oregonians might simply choose not to enter crowded indoor spaces with unmasked people. As more grocery stores roll back their mask rules and rely on the honor system, the list of safe indoor spaces continues to shrink.
When asked what steps the Oregon government can take to protect those people, Sidelinger gave a number of suggestions people could take to protect themselves, and requested people wear masks and “be kind to each other, and think about the actions we are taking if we’re not vaccinated,” echoing past pleas for Oregon residents to mask up and socially distance when those safety measures were voluntary, not required by the government.
Brown also acknowledged that those risks will fall primarily on already-vulnerable people and communities.
“We’re not seeing a huge uptake of vaccinations, and I am gravely concerned. What we know is that many of these communities tend to be moth medically and economically vulnerable, and it will be very, very challenging for the health care systems in these local communities 9if COVID-19 spreads rapidly)” Brown said.
When asked if it was equitable to remove masks, which have been a crucial tool that protects the unwillingly unvaccinated from vaccine-hesitant people, Brown stated she was following guidance laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC guidelines currently recommend that unvaccinated people wear masks indoors, and experts have pushed back against the Biden administration’s decision to remove the mask mandates for people who have been fully vaccinated.
When asked at the news conference to explain her decision not to follow this part of the CDC’s guidance, Brown deferred to Sidelinger, who again encouraged people to wear masks.
Brown was pressed further to say if she would permit unvaccinated individuals to not wear masks in most situations indoors.
“Honestly, she said, “it will be up to folks who are unvaccinated.”
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.