PORTLAND, Oregon – Faced with a 990% increase in coronavirus hospitalizations since July 9, Oregon officials have deployed the National Guard to hospitals, dispatching crisis teams to the hardest-hit areas of the country. State and ordered educators and health workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs.
Now, in her final term which takes effect on Friday, Governor Kate Brown has gone above and beyond what any other state has done to tackle the summer surge, demanding that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks when they are congregate closely in public, even outdoors. She said more restrictions may be needed over the next few days and the state is trying to keep in-person schooling on track.
âAll options are on the table,â Ms. Brown said in an interview this week.
Oregon’s aggressive approach to restoring pandemic warrants is a stark divergence from southern states, where outbreaks have been even worse but many governors have resisted mask and vaccination warrants. But with the arrival of the Delta variant, Oregon has become one of the few states where cases and hospitalizations have risen beyond even the records set during the worst part of the pandemic last year.
The virus is rampant in rural communities where vaccination rates remain low. The state’s hospitals are near full capacity, nearly 50% above the state’s previous peak in December. Last week, a coronavirus patient in Roseburg died while waiting for an intensive care bed.
Oregon Health Authority director Patrick Allen said the situation was so “dire” that he urged unvaccinated people to avoid engaging in non-essential activities.
“It’s so simple. It’s so urgent,” he said.
Yet as the country debates how far to go with new mandates, the lines between what is safe and what is not become increasingly blurred. While she said she was not ruling anything out, Ms Brown did not impose the kind of restrictions that were in place when the virus was less virulent than it is now; it has not banned indoor meals or large public gatherings, and the state resumes face-to-face teaching in most public schools, unless they face serious epidemics.
This has largely left local leaders and businesses – and individuals themselves – to figure out how to navigate this dangerous new ground.
In the state’s largest city, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those who adopted new face covering mandates this month when Ms Brown demanded them for indoor activities, including included for those who are vaccinated. “Please join me in making a commitment to protect those around us by wearing a mask at all times indoors,” said Mr. Wheeler. urged on Twitter.
But, a week later, on August 20, Mr. Wheeler reunited with others in the eighth-floor lounge of a downtown hotel, joining a farewell party for a staff member. leaving. Photos obtained by the New York Times show him sitting with a dozen people – almost all unmasked – testing the limits of the tough new mask rules.
Lennox Wiseley, spokesperson for Mr Wheeler, said the mayor and his staff were following the rules because they “actively ate and / or drank” – the state standard at which people can remove their masks inside.
Guests of the Nines Hotel, where the rally took place, usually wear face coverings but can remove them in the living room to eat or drink, said Bernard Philippe, chief food and beverage director. But he acknowledged that it might be difficult for staff members to determine precisely when masks should be worn.
âIt’s difficult for the server to make these distinctions,â Philippe said.
Ken Stedman, a biology professor at Portland State University who studies viruses, said that although Mr Wheeler’s group appeared to be spaced apart, he was concerned about the gathering.
âI would rather see more masks,â Dr. Stedman said.
Ken Henson, co-owner of Pelican Brewing, which has locations along the Oregon coast, said the strictest interpretation of the rules was that people should wear masks and pull them down just to take a bite of food or a sip of a glass. But, in practice, he said, his restaurants allow customers to remove their masks once their food or drinks are in front of them.
Even among people who are generally compliant, he said, some customers are becoming increasingly suspicious and unwilling to stay on board.
âThe underlying tension is that people are just tired,â Henson said.
Some places have resisted Ms. Brown’s orders. The Redmond School Board, unhappy with the statewide requirement that teachers be vaccinated and students wear masks, passed a resolution Wednesday evening calling for local control over the issues.
Other communities, however, have spoken of going even further than the governor. In Washington County, just outside Portland, commissioners considered banning indoor dining. Kathryn Harrington, chair of the county commissioners council, said the council ultimately chose not to impose such a ban after receiving advice that it would have little effect unless other counties did. join. Instead, the county chose to step up enforcement of mask requirements.
Ms Harrington said she personally had no plans to attend any events for the foreseeable future.
âI’m just not going to take risks with anyone else’s health,â Ms. Harrington said. âIt’s really hard not to see my friends right now. Really hard. But it’s the right thing to do to limit our gatherings with each other.
Until the last wave, Oregon had suffered much of the pandemic as a success story. Among states, it ranks 46th in coronavirus deaths per capita.
For much of the past year, Ms Brown has maintained some of the country’s toughest restrictions and relaxed them later than many other states.
But although many Oregonians adopted the vaccines, those living in the more populous parts of the state were more likely to get one. In some counties, only about a third of residents are vaccinated, creating fertile territory for the spread of the Delta variant. In July, the number of cases in the state began to increase dramatically.
Oregon now has more cases each day than at any time during the pandemic, and hospitalizations, which now average 968 per day, have reached a new high.
Portland healthcare workers pleaded for action at a press conference this week. Levi Cole, an intensive care nurse at Portland Providence Medical Center, said he measured the ages of some of the people he recently put in body bags: 20, 37, 42, 45, 52.
“The enemy has gotten nastier and society as a whole has kind of let its guard down,” Cole said. “We’re all pretty overwhelmed and pretty exhausted and we lack the will and faith in society to do our part.”
Ms Brown, in the interview, said part of the challenge in states like Oregon that largely contained the virus at the start of the pandemic was poor natural population immunity, allowing the more severe variant. contagious virus to run rampant.
The Delta variant started surging across the country just after Ms Brown eased the last remaining restrictions in late June. Dr Renee Edwards, chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Science University, said the timing of the variant’s arrival was unfortunate. To avoid the crisis the state is currently in, she said, the state should have reverted to serious restrictions at least two weeks ago.
The new warrants might not help much now, she said, and projections show cases are expected to peak next week, with or without them.
To help reduce the virus, she said, it is important for people to consider voluntarily restricting activities such as dining and attending concerts, especially if they are not vaccinated.
âIt’s hard to get people back into a mandate state of mind when they felt the freedom of summer,â Dr. Edwards acknowledged.
Ms Brown said last year’s most drastic restrictions – such as closed restaurants and limited gatherings – probably wouldn’t be as necessary this time around because there were simple and effective tools available: masks and vaccinations.
âIf we continue to mask ourselves and get vaccinated,â she said, âwe know these tools will save lives and keep our schools, businesses and communities open. “