Office workers will be required to wear masks indoors to help keep Oregon on track to suppress the growth of COVID-19, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday.
“It’s a small act that can make a big difference,” Brown said.
The rules for face coverings in the workplace are being finalized and could be announced as early as next week.
Brown made the comments during an Oregon Health Authority media briefing on the pandemic’s impact on Oregon.
Official state statistics show 20,636 cases and 348 deaths from the virus.
On Friday, the state reported 423 new cases and nine deaths. The fatalities were in Deschutes, Umatilla, Jefferson, Marion, Malheur, Clackamas, Jackson, Malheur and Yamhill counties. Eight of the dead were over 75 years old. The youngest was a 64-year-old man in Klamath County.
Despite the daily numbers, state officials said overall trends show the rate of growth of new COVID-19 cases has improved.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s top infectious disease expert, said after more than two months of increases, the rate of COVID-19 infection statewide was leveling off. Currently, each case leads to one additional case, a rate that would keep infections at or near current levels.
Maintaining the flat rate is the key to keep Oregon moving toward allowing some in-class instruction at K-12 schools and colleges, the state officials said. Hospitals will have enough hospital beds and ventilators to take care of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“Rather than just a plateau we would like to see our curve and cases drop off,” Sidelinger said.
Until a vaccine is created and widely distributed, health officials can only try to suppress growth in cases, while medical researchers find ways to decrease severe cases with a mix of medicines and treatment.
Sidelinger noted that Oregon was holding at a high rate of infection and that even a 10% increase in cases would lead to an exponential rise in hospitalization that could swamp the state health care system and quickly drive deaths up.
Progress has not been uniform. Infections have been spiking in Morrow and Umatilla counties, where restrictions on businesses and public gatherings have been rolled back under a directive from Brown.
Umatilla County was moved from Phase 2 to baseline, which includes the “stay-at-home” order in place prior to the phased reopening of counties in May. Morrow County moved from Phase 2 to Phase 1 after volunteering to institute local voluntary controls.
The latest list of zip codes with the highest rates of infection were topped by Hermiston in Umatilla County and Boardman in Morrow County. Warm Springs, in Jefferson County, was third and has seen its rate of infection continue to rise. The majority of zip codes with the highest rates of infection are in Eastern Oregon.
The state currently has nine counties on its watchlist of places where the infection rates are worrisome: Baker, Hood River, Jefferson, Malheur, Marion, Morrow, Multnomah, Umatilla and Wasco.
Brown said COVID-19 would continue to challenge the state and she expected to renew the state of emergency she declared March 8 when the current order expires Sept. 4.
Health officials have said the largest driver of new infections was informal get-togethers that extended beyond immediate family.
“Keep your social circle very tight,” Brown said. “Keep your bubble small and consistent.”
While state health and worker safety officials have inspected thousands of businesses for compliance, the state will count on residents’ common sense to follow the rule of no more than 10 people at private gatherings.
“I’m not going to be the party police and knocking on people’s doors,” Brown said.
Future plans to curb COVID-19 include possible travel restrictions. Brown first floated the idea last month, but has said since that the target was unnecessary leisure travel and that any restrictions had to be worked out with neighboring states and not impact commercial or business travel. Any restrictions would be done in concert with neighboring states that adopt the same policies. No action is imminent, Brown said.
Despite pressure from medical and education groups, Brown said she was not inclined to change rules that allow bars to stay open. Critics have said that bar patrons have difficulty maintaining social distancing and that strangers interact, making virus tracing more difficult.
Health officials said many people go to bars with small groups of friends, whom they can identify if there is an infected person in the group.
Brown noted she had ordered bars to close earlier — 10 p.m. — and limit customers to no more than 100. Inspectors from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission were actively inspecting for compliance.
Though Labor Day is less than a month away, Brown and state officials said that several policies were still under review.
Both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University (including OSU-Cascades) last made a major statement about their fall plans in May, when the virus seemed to have been slowed. The universities said they would bring students back to campuses, but use a “hybrid” approach combining in-classroom instruction and online teaching.
There has been no final decision whether campuses will open and how much of a hybrid mix will include students in campus classrooms. In May, a deadline of Aug. 26 was set for as final decision.
The Oregon Legislature will meet in special session on Monday to decide how to fill a projected $1.2 billion state budget deficit due to lost tax revenues and increased health and unemployment costs during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Oregon Health Authority briefing Friday came amid mixed news about the pandemic.
The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said that as of Friday afternoon, there were now just over 4.9 million reported cases in the United States, with 160,737 deaths.
Worldwide, the center said there are 19.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported around the world, with 716,735 deaths.
A New York Times analysis of state health department reports showed that just nine states are showing an increase in infection rate.
Of states neighboring Oregon, California, Nevada and Washington were showing a drop in the rate of new cases, though all were coming off recent steep rises. Idaho, which had also spiked in cases, was listed as holding steady.
A new federal report said 1.2 million Americans filed for unemployment last week. It’s the 20th week in a row that new claims have topped the million mark, but it was the lowest number since March.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring the federal government to buy personal protective equipment and other key public health supplies from companies that made the supplies in the United States. Trump said the move would spur domestic production. The lack of American sites making the equipment at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis meant there were few U.S. sources to ramp up production.