As the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions ease, businesses in Columbia County and across the state are facing decisions about how to best protect employees and customers as Oregon moves ahead.
State Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger said individuals and businesses have choices when it comes to protecting against COVID-19.
“I think individuals have a choice which kind of protection they want to use,” Sidelinger said during a media briefing Friday, May 14. “Masks and physical distancing, or vaccination — and I hope more people choose vaccination, because it’s safe, it’s effective and it’s available across the state right now.”
The doctor’s comments came the day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out new guidance for wearing face coverings, saying those who’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 don’t need to wear masks or physically distance in many instances.
Oregon Thursday adopted that guidance, allowing the fully vaccinated to unmask, with exceptions, such as public transit, health care facilities and homeless shelters, where masks are still required.
“We have the tools we’ve been using since last summer: keeping our distance, wearing our masks,” Sidelinger “Now we have some other amazing tools: We have three very safe and effective vaccines that people can choose to use.”
But the federal and state announcements Thursday have left a lot of questions still to be answered — particularly for businesses where COVID-19 restrictions have faced the most complexity throughout the pandemic.
Sidelinger said more clear guidance would be coming from the Oregon Health Authority, but that businesses also have the choice for how to keep their customers safe. They can’t choose to serve only vaccinated customers, but they can choose which set of measures to put in place, he said.
“Businesses should have a plan to either keep the current guidance in place — where they require physical distancing and masking for everyone — or implement a plan where they’re checking the vaccination status of those who come in and that those individuals could be allowed to be in that business without wearing their masks and with less physical distancing,” Sidelinger said.
The change doesn’t yet mean the state’s four-tier, capacity-limiting framework is going away.
Those rules are in place at least until 70% of the state is vaccinated, and businesses still have to limit their capacity based on those rules in their county. But businesses can now choose to allow fully vaccinated customers to unmask if they verify their vaccination status.
That adds yet another rule for businesses to keep track of.
“We know that this puts put them into a different position, if they chose to implement a system where those who are (vaccinated) can come into the business without a mask and without physical distancing, it will require them to ask about vaccination status and check on that before they come in, and that’ll put some in a difficult position,” Sidelinger said.
Sidelinger noted that voluntary disclosure of someone’s vaccination status isn’t a violation of privacy laws — but said the state is figuring out how that verification process should work.
“As you can probably imagine, this is a radical shift in the CDC framework,” Sidelinger said.
New rules and guidance from the state are in development and will be released soon, he said.
Sidelinger’s comments came as the state’s COVID-19 cases have begun to dip, and state models project future declines in cases and hospitalizations. Still, the doctor recommended getting vaccinated or taking other measures to keep those numbers down.
“Much like spring weather in Oregon where, right now, it’s sunny and warm but we know we’re not guaranteed sunny days all into summer — that’s how COVID is,” Sideligner said. “Right now, we’re seeing decreasing cases and decreasing hospitalizations. But that decrease in cases depends on all of us taking action.”
On Thursday, the Oregon Health Authority reported Columbia County's latest COVID-19 death, a 73-year-old man who tested positive on March 28 and died on April 2 at Portland VA Medical Center.
On Friday, the OHA reported an 89-year-old man from Columbia County who tested positive on April 12 and died on May 10 at Portland VA Medical Center. Presence of underlying conditions is being confirmed. OHA also reported that a 68-year-old man from Columbia County who tested positive on April 3 and died on April 18 at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, WA. He had underlying conditions. He had underlying conditions.
Since the pandemic swept across the state in March of last year, Columbia County has recorded 31 deaths and 1,749 cases. Oregon has recorded 2,582 deaths and 194,542 cases as of May 14.