OHA officials says there’s ‘reason for optimism,’ which may mean eventually lifting mask requirement for health care settings
PORTLAND, Ore. — Recent declines in community spread of influenza and RSV are expected to continue into spring, and while state health officials monitor a recent uptick in COVID-19 activity, respiratory virus hospitalizations should keep dropping over the coming weeks.
Dean Sidelinger, M.D., M.S.Ed., health officer and state epidemiologist at Oregon Health Authority (OHA), said RSV activity has dropped significantly since its peak in late November, and the state is close to the end of RSV season. Influenza activity is expected to decline following a slight and short-lived increase in influenza B cases. And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention modeling predicts that COVID-19 hospitalizations are likely to remain flat during February after declining since late December.
“We are now well into the new year, with spring rapidly approaching, and I’m happy to report there’s reason for optimism in the months ahead,” said Sidelinger, speaking during OHA’s monthly COVID-19 media briefing this morning.
The improving conditions, if they continue, could allow OHA to eventually lift the state rule requiring workers in health care settings to wear masks, Sidelinger said. But any change to the rule must be made carefully, in consultation with health care and local public health partners, and agency health advisors and leaders.
“As we move through this new phase of the pandemic, we are reexamining all pandemic-related policies in place, including masking in health care settings, and we’ll be sharing additional information as it becomes available,” Sidelinger said.
The state is still operating under an emergency because of high hospitalizations of patients with respiratory diseases, Sidelinger noted. That emergency gives the state’s health care system additional flexibility to care for patients.
“Members of our health care workforce have been on the front lines of Oregon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout this public health emergency. They have weathered Delta and Omicron surges. They, and people in their care, needed the added protection of masks,” he said.
State public health officials are “keeping an eye” on a recent uptick in COVID-19 activity – an increase in test positivity in the last two weeks – that is likely caused by the now-predominant XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant. They also are staying alert to a possible second influenza wave driven by influenza B, which often fills the void left by plummeting influenza A activity late in the flu season.
But as the state closes in on the end of flu and RSV seasons and ramps down its pandemic response with the rest of the country, state officials are seeing “more positive changes that speak to the normalization – and manageability – of COVID-19 in our lives,” Sidelinger said.
For example, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has removed a requirement that patients must test positive for COVID-19 to be prescribed antiviral medicines. And public health officials are emphasizing the importance of preparing for COVID-19 exposure and infection – especially those at high risk for severe outcomes – by knowing their risks, making a plan for when they get sick, and taking action if they test positive to protect themselves and those around them.
“And give yourself a leg up on reducing your risk of infection by getting the COVID-19 vaccine and booster,” Sidelinger said.
During the media briefing, Sidelinger also discussed the state’s continuing response to the mpox outbreak. He said Oregon is still seeing a small number of mpox cases each month, which is expected to continue as the state settles into an endemic phase of the outbreak.
“We are working closely with local public health, health care and community partners to get the word out about the importance and availability of the Jynneos vaccine, and to promote vaccination events as they become available,” he said.