Gov. Kate Brown at a news conference in Portland on Thursday, March 12. (Jonathan House/Pamplin Media)

The state is directing people in Malheur County and elsewhere in Oregon to wear masks when going into public places starting Friday, Aug. 13, in an effort to thwart a rapidly-spreading coronavirus variant.

The order likely won’t be popular locally with some residents and educators already bristling at the announcement last week that everyone in schools will have to wear masks.

Gov. Kate Brown announced her new directive Wednesday, citing a record number of people hospitalized for Covid treatment in recent weeks. She said masks and voluntary vaccinations were the surest way to stop the pandemic.

On Monday, Malheur County reported 31 cases of Covid, continuing a weeks-long local surge in cases of the virus and Delta variant. The county has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

Medical authorities say the Delta variant is more contagious and puts people in the hospital longer.

The governor said she hopes the measure will preserve space in hospitals following projections that the state could be short up to 500 hospital beds by September, according to the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Health & Science University.

“Wearing a mask should give you confidence that you are not infecting others,” Brown said during the conference. “Masks are also our best bet at keeping our school and our businesses open.”

The governor also said that she is prioritizing keeping businesses open and getting kids to school. The masking requirements apply to all indoor public spaces such as restaurants and stores.

The mandate does not include business capacity limits at this time.

She said enforcement will come through the OHA and OSHA, as they did with the previous mask mandate, if the numbers don’t go down in a few weeks.

Oregon joined Louisiana and Hawaii in requiring masks during the surge of the Delta variant, which yesterday broke state records for Covid hospitalizations with 635 hospitalizations and 164 Covid patients in intensive care.

Brown also announced that virtually all state employees must be fully vaccinated on or before Oct. 18, or whenever a Covid vaccine gets approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichever comes later. The requirement does not apply to those who work for the Legislature or state court system.

The governor and health officials said that if 80% of Oregonians follow the masking requirement and vaccine recommendations, it will reduce the number of needed beds over the next month from 500 to around 250.

Patrick Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, told reporters his agency is planning to help hospitals by using nurse crisis teams, expanding patient work forces, moving more people out of hospitals into local care facilities, and sharing medical equipment in areas of high need.

“Even today - with what we know today, with where our hospitals are today, with the amount of disease we have in the state - the actions that the governor is taking are being characterized by some as oppressive,” said Allen. “We had continued throughout to say people who aren’t vaccinated should wear masks, and it just wasn’t happening.”

Malheur County has the second lowest vaccination rate for people over 18 in the state, at 38.8%, according to the OHA. The statewide vaccination rate is 69.9%.

YOUR OPINION: Tell us whether you will or won't comply with the mask order and a bit about why for our continuing coverage. Send your comments via email to reporter Abbey McDonald - [email protected]

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Gov. Brown to announce statewide indoor mask mandate

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