Students walking up stairs in Franklin High School. They are all wearing masks.
Students at Franklin High School. Portland Public Schools

COVID-19 cases have doubled in Oregon over the past month, prompting differing COVID safety recommendations from state and county health officials.

While the true number of COVID cases in the region is obscured by the increased availability of at-home tests that aren’t reported to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the number of people with COVID who don’t get tested at all, a combination of data points indicate that the virus has a significant presence in Multnomah County and other populous areas of the state, according to state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger.

“Our state and national trends all tell us that significant disease transmission is occurring,” Sidelinger said during a press conference Wednesday.

COVID cases and hospitalizations have doubled over the past month, jumping from an average 600 daily cases and 110 hospitalizations on April 20 to 1,350 daily cases and 251 hospitalizations on May 16. Additionally, test positivity rates have risen from 7 percent to 11.4 percent in the same time period. The state indoor mask mandate was lifted on March 12.

These numbers are still far below what Oregon witnessed during the omicron surge earlier this year, when daily cases peaked around 9,600 with over 1,000 hospitalizations in January. However, Sidelinger said that anyone leaving their home should expect to be exposed to the virus.

“If you’re in a gathering of people outside your home, sooner or later you will be exposed to the virus,” Sidelinger said. “This could be where you worship, where you work, where you recreate, where you shop, or where you connect with friends and family.”

Despite the rising presence of COVID in Oregon communities, various health officials are making different safety recommendations. Last week, Multnomah County officials recommended everyone, regardless of vaccination status or personal COVID risk, wear a mask indoors due to the prevalence of COVID in the county. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties are all at a “medium” risk level for COVID, while a vast majority of the state is considered “low” risk.

“We are asking everyone to put their masks back on for a few weeks as they go to school, work and other indoor events,” said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines in a press release, “We are not asking employers, organizations or event planners to do anything differently; this is a message for individuals, especially those who are at high risk of severe COVID.”

During Wednesday’s press conference, Sidelinger said OHA is only recommending people wear a mask indoors if they are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or have close contact with people who have a higher risk of catching COVID. Last week, OHA stopped short of recommending masks in schools, instead asking school officials to continue offering free COVID testing, maintain proper airflow in classrooms, and—if necessary—recommend masks in order to preserve in-person learning through the end of the school year.

Sidelinger said that the rise in cases won’t trigger the return of an indoor mask mandate or additional safety measures, particularly because the current surge is expected to peak soon. According to predictions from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), Oregon is expected to reach a peak of 321 COVID hospitalizations on June 10—well within the state hospital system’s capacity.

Sidelinger did recommend that immunocompromised people who may experience severe illness if they catch COVID contact their healthcare provider now to develop a treatment plan in case they are infected. Oregon now has access to antiviral COVID treatments that can help prevent hospitalization, but treatment must begin within five days of the first sign of symptoms in order to be most effective. Anyone without a healthcare provider can call 211 for more information on how to access COVID treatment.

“If we each take steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones, COVID-19 does not have to dominate our lives,” Sidelinger said. “Some of us will choose to be more cautious for our health or the health of our loved ones, so let’s support each other as we move through this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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