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Oregon Has Imposed A Mask Mandate As A COVID Surge Overwhelms Hospitals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Oregon now, which is in the middle of its worst surge in COVID-19 cases. In an effort to keep schools open there, the governor has reimposed a comprehensive statewide mask mandate, and the National Guard is helping overwhelmed hospitals. Amelia Templeton of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: At a news conference yesterday, Democratic Governor Kate Brown reminded Oregonians about the mandate and asked them to be considerate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE BROWN: This isn't about you. This is about the kids under 12 that can't be vaccinated. It's also about our health care workers. All of these people need us to be wearing our masks.

TEMPLETON: The crisis unfolding in Oregon is a striking example of how vaccination rates in the United States aren't high enough to stop the spread of the more contagious delta variant. Oregon had strict masking and distancing measures in place for most of the pandemic. The governor lifted them and reopened bars and restaurants in July. That's when the state hit the Biden administration's goal of 70% of eligible adults with the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But in rural and suburban parts of the state that lean Republican, vaccination rates are much lower. It took just eight weeks for the delta variant to rip through southern Oregon and parts of the Willamette Valley. COVID patients now occupy about half the adult ICU beds in Oregon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. We'll go up into the air...

TEMPLETON: In the COVID-19 ICU at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital, the patients are all quiet, sedated so they can tolerate the machines that are keeping them alive. A team of nurses uses a sling suspended from the ceiling to roll a man onto his stomach. It helps the ventilator get oxygen deep into his lungs. His eyes are closed, and there's no sign he can see or feel the people caring for him. ICU charge nurse Erin Bonai says caring for people whose suffering or deaths could have been prevented by a vaccine weighs heavily on her.

ERIN BONAI: We have had people in their 20s die in this unit. We have had mothers lose their babies in this unit. People always think it can't be them because they're fully functioning in their lives, and that's just not true. And the real truth is that we don't know who's going to be impacted. We just don't.

TEMPLETON: Forecasters now predict Oregon's cases will peak this week. Researchers say mask wearing is back up and likely slowing the spread of the virus. And in some of the hardest-hit communities, the delta variant may be running out of new people to infect.

For NPR News, I'm Amelia Templeton in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.