Andrea Davila, a nurse at the Kaiser Permanente North Lancaster clinic administers a test for COVID-19 at the clinic's drive-thru testing site on Wednesday, April 29. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

From new mask rules in school to climbing hospitalizations, Covid is again shaping life in Salem. We help you get up to speed on the latest.

NEW CASES

The number of people in Marion and Polk counties diagnosed with Covid has climbed in recent weeks, driven by what local and state health officials say is the dominance of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.

From July 30 to Aug. 5, Marion County recorded 461 new Covid infections, up from 265 the week before. Polk County reported 160 new cases, up from 78 the week before.

Across Oregon, the number of “breakthrough” cases - where someone fully vaccinated against the virus tests positive for Covid - climbed in July compared to June, but the vast majority of Covid infections and hospitalizations remain in unvaccinated Oregonians.

The Oregon Health Authority recorded 2,406 breakthrough cases statewide in July, according to a report released Thursday. Of Oregon’s July Covid cases, 81% were in unvaccinated people. Nine out of 10 people hospitalized for treatment of the virus were unvaccinated.

“The rate of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated individuals at the end of July is approximately six times the rate of COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated individuals,” the health authority said in its report.

HOSPITALIZATIONS

The number of people hospitalized with Covid at Salem Health has doubled in the past week. As of Aug. 5, 37 patients were hospitalized, Salem Health spokeswoman Lisa Wood said, with seven of them in the intensive care unit. That’s up from 18 patients on July 29.

The Oregon Health Authority reports hospital bed occupancy by region. For region 2, which includes Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Benton, Lincoln and Linn counties, 63 people were hospitalized with Covid on Aug. 5, compared to 39 one week ago.

Though the increase in patients is sharp, numbers remain below hospitalization peaks in the spring and last winter. The number of people hospitalized with Covid in region 2 peaked on Dec. 6, 2020, with 108, and peaked again on April 29 with 79.

Salem Health is not limiting or postponing elective surgeries to preserve capacity for Covid care is it did last winter.

Lucas Gage arrives by bus for the first day of in-person kindergarten at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

SCHOOLS

Gov. Kate Brown announced July 29 that students, employees and visitors in Oregon K-12 schools would be required to wear masks while indoors during the school day, citing the spread of the Delta variant and the fact that children under 12 can’t be vaccinated against Covid.

Some school leaders and parents across the state objected to the loss of local control that Brown and state officials had previously promised for the fall return to school.

On Aug. 3, the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority issued rules saying schools that don’t comply could face fines of up to $500 per day, and individual teachers could also be disciplined. 

State officials will begin enforcing the rule Aug. 12. It doesn’t apply to sports or other extracurricular activities that take place at schools. State officials said those activities are not included because students have a choice about whether to participate, whereas they are required by law to attend school.

MASK REQUIREMENTS

Following a federal recommendation that even vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors, Brown announced July 30 that state employees would have to be masked while at work. The policy also applies to visitors to state offices.

Brown urged local government agencies to adopt similar policies, but there’s been little appetite to do so in the Salem area.

The city of Salem has recommended employees wear masks indoors, but is not requiring it, according to city spokeswoman Emily DuPlessis-Enders.

The Marion County Board of Commissioners won’t adopt new mask mandates either for employees or the public, Commissioner Kevin Cameron said.

“The vaccines are working and people need to make their own choice. If they need to wear a mask they should, if they have a condition,” Cameron said. “We encourage people to use the vaccines because the vaccines are working.”

In Polk County, Commissioner Craig Pope said the Board of Commissioners isn’t considering mask mandates either for county employees or for county residents. Pope said they’re urging people to wear masks when around others, but said county employees have little contact with the public.

“We have found that it’s essentially impossible to mandate masks on common spaces,” Pope said. “My statement to the public is: ‘Come on, be smart, don’t expose yourself.’”

Pope said the county is also working to “make certain that our public activities, anything we’re doing with the public, is as open and as distanced as possible.” He said the upcoming county fair, which begins Aug. 12, has moved vendors and most activities outdoors to limit virus transmission.

VACCINATION REQUIREMENTS

Brown said Aug. 4 that Oregon’s health care workers should prepare for regular Covid tests if they’re unwilling to get vaccinated against the virus. By Sept. 30, she said any health care worker who declines a vaccine should be tested weekly for Covid. The announcement was celebrated by the Oregon Association of Hospitals & Health Systems and the Oregon Nurses Association. Salem Health already had such a policy in place.

Oregon has a state law, unique in the nation, which bars employers from requiring health care workers be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Brown said she would support changing that law in the 2022 Legislature.

Some private employers in Oregon have started requiring vaccinations, but so far there are no mandates in place for state or Salem-area local government employees. Brown told The Oregonian in late July she’s considering a requirement for state employees.

The city of Salem has not required vaccination but has encouraged employees to get their shots, DuPlessis-Enders said.

Cameron and Pope said Marion and Polk counties, respectively, were not considering such mandates but would continue to make vaccines available for employees. 

“People need to get vaccinated, but that is their personal choice,” said Cameron, who got his Covid vaccine live during a commissioner meeting on April 7 in hopes of encouraging others. “If you look at the data, the people who are getting sick are not vaccinated.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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