As Oregon prepares to enter its eighth month of grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, all but four of the state’s 36 counties have moved into the second phase of Governor Kate Brown’s reopening plan.
Three of those (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington) comprise the Portland metro area, which contains approximately 60% of the state’s population — and which is nowhere close to phase 2, according to the governor’s metrics.
Those three counties have also been lumped together by the state for reopening decisions, because many Clackamas County residents work elsewhere in the tri-county area, and vice versa.
However, Clackamas has a smaller population and fewer Covid-19 cases and deaths than its metro area neighbors, and leaders have repeatedly called for Clackamas and Washington counties to be “unshackled” from the state’s largest concentrated population center in Portland and Multnomah.
During a meeting of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners last Thursday, County Chair Jim Bernard said he — along with the chairs of Washington and Multnomah counties — have essentially given up hope of the Portland metro area ever meeting the strict standards the state has imposed.
“We talked about where we are, and where we are, frankly, is going nowhere,” Bernard said. “We’re never going to reach these metrics to the satisfaction of the state to move forward, so we need to look at something different.”
The fourth county still in phase 1 is Malheur in southeast Oregon, a rural expanse with a population roughly equivalent to that of the Canby School District — spread across almost 10,000 square miles.
Suffice to say, it faces different challenges with regard to Covid-19 than the Portland metro.
“There are only four counties in the state that have not passed to phase 2,” said Bernard. “Something has to happen. We are not the rest of the state. I mean, you talk urban-rural divide — well, we have an urban divide here that needs to be looked at differently.”
Bernard has asked County Public Health Director Dr. Philip Mason-Joyner and Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present to draft a letter to Governor Brown and the Oregon Health Authority requesting they reevaluate the Covid-19 metrics for reopening schools and businesses in Clackamas and its neighboring counties.
“We’re never going to get out of this cycle until we can do something different,” said Bernard. “We need to work together with the state and convince the state that our metrics need to be fixed.”
Commissioner Ken Humberston agreed with Benard, saying that he believes the no. 1 metric should go back to what it was in the earlier days of the pandemic: ensuring that the region has sufficient hospital capacity to handle seriously ill Covid-19 patients on top of other emergencies.
“Right now we have more vacancies in our intensive care units and more ventilators than we did several months ago,” Humberston said to Bernard. “I think your point is well taken that we’ll never meet the six metrics unless the disease goes away.”
Commissioner Paul Savas echoed the call for a renewed focus on hospital capacity.
“We’ve learned a lot, but these phase 2 indicators are, frankly, not the right indicators,” he said. “They just aren’t.”
Savas also repeated a common complaint of his, that the standards for reopening seem to be being applied unfairly, particularly with regard to Marion County — which has a smaller population than Clackamas but nearly twice as many coronavirus cases and significantly more deaths.
“If you’re really looking at the science and looking at the numbers to try and evaluate it, I think the system we’ve got needs to be fixed,” said Savas. “And it’s no fault of anyone in this room, but it’s definitely skewed.
“When you look at the numbers for Marion County and then look at these phase 2 metrics, they just don’t gel.”
While there are some in the Portland metro area who feel the three counties should draft their own plans and metrics for reopening and move forward — with or without the governor’s blessing — Bernard believes this to be a distinct minority.
Most leaders favor asking for permission rather than forgiveness, he said — at least for the time being.
“There’s probably not support for three counties to do that,” he said. “But we do need to tell the governor that there is a difference between the three of us and the rest of the state. And we need to show where those differences are and convince the governor and her staff that this is the right path.”
Clackamas County commissioners have previously asked to be decoupled from Multnomah and Washington counties and proceed to phase 2, citing hospital capacity and Covid-19 metrics that — while not meeting all of the state’s strict standards — have generally been better than the rest of the metro region.
On more than one occasion, Governor Brown has said no.
Bernard estimated that it would take Dr. Mason-Joyner, Dr. Present and the rest of the county public health team two to three weeks to compile the challenges and barriers currently facing the metro region in meeting the governor’s metrics — and suggest reasonable changes to those metrics that might be made.
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