Opinion: Taking COVID-19's lessons into Multnomah County's future
In the year since the first COVID-19 case was detected, Multnomah County has stepped up in so many ways to help our residents navigate incredible, frequent and oftentimes cascading challenges. We're taking the lessons we've learned forward to both help end the pandemic as quickly as possible and to inform major initiatives around housing, mental health and early childhood education.
Reopening depends on lowering case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. So Multnomah County is aggressively using the small share of vaccines it receives from the state to reach people at highest risk of getting sick and dying.
Once vaccines became available, county staff called every adult care home every week to get 3,500 eligible residents signed up and vaccinated. Then, with nearly 1,500 care home residents still unable to reach a mass clinic, we mapped those residences and, beginning last weekend, deployed our public health teams door-to-door. We're also planning a drive-through clinic for the remainder of residents while we identify strategies to identify and reach other isolated seniors unable to reach mass vaccine sites.
Because our county clinics kept providing health care throughout the pandemic, the federal government just selected Multnomah County for a pilot program to receive additional vaccine doses. Not only do we serve a disproportionate share of patients who are elderly, immigrants, experiencing homelessness, or are from Black, indigenous, Latinx, or other communities of color, we proved we have the flexibility and ability to provide vaccination services that might be unavailable otherwise.
Every night of the week our Public Health staff is in community conversations to find out what is keeping highest-risk populations from accessing vaccines. That has helped us plan small clinics to vaccinate eligible seniors who are at higher risk because of work, income, shorter life expectancy, underlying health conditions, language, living in multi-generational households, cultural barriers and systemic racism.
The county receives just a fraction of the vaccines coming into the metro area. But making the most difference with the limited resources we have is a fundamental Multnomah County value and guides our approach to our largest endeavors.
Last May, tri-county voters approved Metro's $2.4 billion Supportive Housing Services Measure, an historic infusion of resources for rent assistance and behavioral health supports that will help us address chronic homelessness and racial disparities in homelessness.
As soon as voters approved these funds, Multnomah County got to work on a community-built plan, ensuring we could spend the money expediently, equitably and effectively, even in a pandemic. When my budget comes out next month, you'll see a clear and specific vision for how we plan to get started, including allocations for specific programs and strategies.
And despite the pandemic, we're proceeding to build a new Behavioral Health Resource Center, at 333 S.W. Park Ave., to provide exactly what our chronically homeless neighbors have told us they need: a safe place to spend the day inside and sleep; ways to meet daily, basic needs like a shower and laundry; mental health and addictions case management and treatment; and, crucially, shelter and transitional housing.
Finally, the voter-approved Preschool for All measure gives us the opportunity to build — for the first time — an early childhood education system that is created in partnership with families and communities who have been priced out and left out. With their leadership and collaboration, we are building a new way of caring for and educating preschoolers where access and equity are foundational values.
The unrelenting demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have required the county to engage residents, collaborate and innovate as we never have before. We'll be using that muscle memory to recover and rebuild something better.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.