Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday ordered a return to a state requirement that face masks be worn indoors in public places, beginning Friday.
At a Wednesday morning press call, Brown said the highly contagious delta variant was pushing the coronavirus spread to the point that each infected person was infecting eight others.
"Moving forward, for the immediate future, masks will be required for all indoor public settings," Brown said.
The mandate applies to adults and children older than 5. On public transit, it also includes children older than 2.
Brown also urged, but did not mandate, wearing masks in crowded outdoor situations. She also urged private companies and other organizations to enact their own indoor mask policies.
Brown's order came the day after the Oregon Health & Sciences University's infectious disease experts forecast the state could see over 1,000 COVID-19 patients per day in hospitals by early next month. Oregon would be about 500 staffed beds short of needs for all patients if the rate hit its projected peak of Sept. 7.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, said this "fifth wave" of COVID-19 to hit the state in the past 18 months was different than earlier spikes.
More than half the population is vaccinated, but the "relentless" delta variant was spreading rapidly through the estimated 1.2 million Oregon residents who are not inoculated. That group includes children under 12 for whom there is no federally approved vaccine as yet.
An illustration of the exponential growth came with Wednesday's weekly report on COVID-19 variants in samples sequenced to determine their characteristics. On July 21, the report showed 90 delta variants. Last week, showed 260. The report on Wednesday showed 600.
OHA has reported patients arriving at hospitals are younger, sicker, require more care and stay longer.
"The COVID-19 situation is dire," Sidelinger said, with the delta variant "far outpacing even the grim scenarios in our latest reported projections."
Oregon will become the third state, along with Hawaii and Louisiana, with a statewide mask mandate.
Wednesday's action was a policy U-turn for Brown and the Oregon Health Authority, who had relinquished decisions on COVID-19 restrictions to county supervisors as of June 30.
With the delta variant rapidly filling hospitals to capacity across the state, Brown urged counties to require masks indoors in public spaces. Only Multnomah County, which includes Portland, did so.
Multnomah County's infection rate was reported at 5.3% in the latest OHA weekly report. That is nearly half the state average of 9.5%, which is twice the maximum 5% that epidemiologists say will keep the spread of the virus under control.
Counties with high infection rates, low vaccination numbers and swamped health care centers were not budging, despite calls from the governor and OHA about the critical hospital situation in their areas.
"I expected local elected officials to step up and do the right thing," Brown said. "What is clear is they are not taking action. That is why we are moving forward."
OHA and OHSU officials have pointed to several counties where no action was taking place despite having infection rates double the state average of 9.5%.
Statistics show the highest rates concentrated in two areas: Umatilla, Baker, Union, Malheur, and Wallowa counties in eastern Oregon, and Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, and Curry counties in southwestern Oregon. Crook County in central Oregon also has twice the state rate.
Nearly all are in areas that have been resistant to masking mandates and other restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Vaccination rates were low in part because of what OHA Director Pat Allen had termed "vaccine belligerence," while testifying this spring before a legislative committee.
State Republican leaders criticized Brown for switching away from the June 30 policy of local control and earlier voluntary recommendations for masks and vaccination.
Though Brown had ceded daily control of COVID-19 response to the counties, the emergency order powers she first invoked in March 2020 allowed her to move authority back to OHA at any point.
Brown said there were no plans currently in the works to restrict the gathering of large crowds during the period showing infections and hospitalizations rising sharply until Sept. 7 before declining.
No ban on county fairs, the Pendleton Round-Up, the Oregon State Fair in Marion County, Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers and other college football games, concerts or other major events in Oregon was in the works "at this time," Brown said.
The Pendleton Round-Up, the major event of the year in the area, held in mid-September, had been cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic. Amid months of declining infection rates, Brown earlier this summer said "Let 'er buck," a popular saying of fans of the event, which draws more than 50,000 to the region.
With the delta variant hitting Umatilla County especially hard, the pandemic was once again raising questions about large scale events.
In an Aug. 10 newsletter for local officials, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said that the rising infection levels and low county vaccination levels were not going without notice in Salem.
"Putting an event in jeopardy that means $60 million to the local economy is dangerous particularly knowing that for some of our businesses, it could be the final nail in their coffin," Murdock wrote. "In the coming weeks, we need to dramatically increase our vaccination rates to demonstrate we are serious and that we care."
The most recent spike in eastern Oregon was pushed higher by the WhiskeyFest, an outdoor concert last month that attracted over 12,000 people in Pendleton. But state officials did not step in to block the Umatilla County Fair this week or similar events in high-infection areas.
Brown on Tuesday ordered all state executive branch employees will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18.
"Delta is a different virus — it has changed everything," Brown said.
The mask rules will go into effect Friday. The state will not immediately enforce the rules as people and businesses make the change.
But the order does not have a target end point as the delta variant's impact is still being gauged by state officials.
OHSU officials on Tuesday said the peak of the current wave is expected around Sept. 7, with its effects continuing at least into the late autumn.
Allen, OHA director, said the state would be sending nurse crisis teams to areas where the medical workforce is "overwhelmed and overtaxed" by the non-stop flow of new patients.
OHA will work to free up more hospital space in other health care facilities that could be used for recovery after the most acute phase of the infection recedes.