Ashton Bisner, Photographer
Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinion of The Daily Barometer. This column reflects the personal opinions of the writer.
It will take a lot for me to stop wearing a mask,” said third-year Oregon State University student Sydney B., who did not want her last name used for privacy reasons.
Oregon’s mask mandate is set to expire on March 12.
April Holland, public health director of Benton County Health Department, said the county is looking at data to support the lifting of the mask mandate, including hospitalization rates, overall vaccine rate, availability of therapeutics, community transmission, vaccination eligibility for six-month infants to four-year-old children and equity.
What is perplexing is that we know that masking works to reduce transmission and lifting a mandate that works sends us very mixed messages! Why are we lifting a mandate that works when we had an average of 1,024 hospitalized cases from COVID-19 as recently as Feb. 17?
Benton County is almost at the 80% mark of fully-vaccinated residents at 75% as of Feb. 28.
One of the considerations for removing masking is the availability of therapeutics in our local hospitals. According to Holland, we have monoclonal antibody treatments and newer antiviral therapies available, but these are limited… We are only comforted by the fact that the supply is expected to increase by the time the mask mandate is lifted.
If there is a new variant that spreads and is more severe once the mask mandate is lifted, “state and local health officials will review the impact on communities and consider options for targeted masking requirements,” Holland said.
We have been in this pandemic for two years. It has cost 5.98 million lives all over the world, and 955,290 deaths in the United States. Why are we willing to lose more lives to indulge in a short-term sense of “normalcy”?
Community transmission appears to fluctuate. According to the Feb. 15 Benton County Board of Commisioners meeting, the week of Feb. 6, Benton County had gone down 37% in positive case rates relative to the previous week, and over 50% relative to the two week period before that. Relative to the rest of the state, Benton County had a testing positivity rate of 11.5%. Out of the 36 counties in Oregon, there were only five other counties that had a testing positivity rate higher than ours.
For reference, the moderate community transmission category is within 50 to 99 cases per 100,000 people.
On March 1, OSU sent an email informing students that they would follow Oregon Health Authority guidance and lift masking requirements beginning March 12.
“I know there are people who still do not have the vaccine, and will still refuse to get the vaccine,” Sydney B. said. “And there are also a portion of people who cannot get the vaccine. I think more of the people who can’t get a vaccine—that if we all stopped wearing masks how that will affect that population.”
I remember the last time we lifted the mask mandate during the summer of 2021, believing we were on our way out. It was short lived and honestly not worth the confusion. This looks to me like we are repeating previous mistakes, especially when cases and hospitalization rates are higher.
This feels like an act of treachery from Oregon authorities who are just giving up on equity for those of us who are considered vulnerable. I’m not buying the “shift-out-crisis-mode” path they are following, as it undermines all the public health efforts we have been asked to do for the past two years.
Those who cannot shift out of crisis due to underlying diseases in the community may not have the resources to do so.
“Masking is an important layer of protection, and community-wide indoor masking is an effective way to reduce transmission in a surge,” Holland said.
I’m not impressed at our lack of preparation leading up to the expiration date of the mask mandate, and lack of evidence to back up the mask mandate lift.