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The Pandemic Nearly Disappeared in Multnomah County. It’s Back.

On Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority said it’s time to mask up again.

For the week ending July 6, the average daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Multnomah County was just 18. That was a low suggesting that, with a rise in vaccinations, Portland might be finding its way toward the end of the pandemic.

Less than three weeks later, for the week ending July 26, the county saw an average of 55 new cases a day, according to Oregon Health Authority data. That’s more than double the number of cases each week as the number of tests coming back positive has risen too.

Though case counts still remain relatively low, county health officials had seen enough.

The Delta variant has become dominant in Oregon, according to recent tests, and the trajectory is clear. Even as the county has vaccinated hundreds of thousands of residents—65% in all age groups have received at least a first dose—the more contagious variant is still sending unvaccinated Portlanders to the hospital.

That explains why, on July 26, county health officials reinstituted a recommendation for everyone (vaccinated or no) to go back to wearing a mask indoors, with the ominous implication that the county could see shutdowns if the cases continue to spike.

“Masking is a step we can all take right now to keep businesses open and move ahead with our plans for the school year,” Multnomah County public health director Jessica Guernsey said in a statement. “This is the thing that will make a difference.”

On July 27, case counts rose again, in both the county and the state. And following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that recommends everyone wear masks indoors, the Oregon Health Authority also issued a recommendation to wear masks indoors.

“Today’s reported sharp rise in cases and hospitalizations in Oregon are sobering reminders that the pandemic is not over, especially for Oregonians who remain unvaccinated,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and state health officer, said in a statement.

“The highly contagious Delta variant has increased tenfold in the past two weeks in Oregon, and it is now estimated to be associated with 80% of the new cases in Oregon. The use of face masks provides significant protection for individuals who are unvaccinated as well as an additional level protection from a small but known risk of infection by the virus for persons who have already been vaccinated.” (And Gov. Kate Brown endorsed the recommendation on Twitter.)