The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Friday, May 15, unanimously approved the county's plan to reopen certain sectors previously restricted by the state due to the coronavirus.
When, exactly, the county will submit its plan to receive state approval to enter the first phase of reopening is still unclear. But officials said Friday the county is moving closer to meeting all state requirements.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced counties could apply starting May 8 to begin a three-phase approach to gradually, and conditionally, lift COVID-19-related restrictions on in-person activities for businesses, personal service providers, retailers and public spaces.
In response to Brown's announcement, Kathryn Harrington, chair of the county board, said the county expects to meet all the prerequisites required by the state to enter Phase 1 by early to mid-June.
The county was already meeting requirements to show declining hospitalizations, provide sufficient testing and hospital beds, demonstrate the ability to isolate cases of COVID-19, and provide sufficient personal protective equipment to first responders, but it lacked the required staffing to conduct contact tracing.
On Friday, commissioners also unanimously approved two contracts with health care organizations to hire staff required to adequately conduct contact tracing.
"We don't recommend submitting the plan to (the Oregon Health Authority) and the governor's office until we feel really confident that we've met all of the prerequisites," said Marni Kuyl, director of Washington County Health and Human Services. "We know our community is anxious to start opening up. But it's important that we do this right. We don't want to have to backtrack and close back down, so we are being cautious in our approach."
One contract approved Friday will allow Express Healthcare Professionals to recruit and hire up to 23 nurses to interview and support all residents who test positive for COVID-19. Express Health Care Professionals will hire locally, including available bilingual staff, as requested by the county. The contract will last through the end of the year and amounted to more than $1.8 million.
A substantially larger contract, amounting to more than $9 million, went to Portland-based nonprofit Oregon Public Health Institute to hire 142 people for contact tracing, monitoring, isolation and quarantine support, data entry, disease surveillance, and outbreak investigations.
"Express Healthcare Professionals believe that they will have a lot of staff in place by May 22, the end of next week, and then we'll need to get training done quickly," Kuyl said, adding that once staff are in place, the county will have a better sense of when it can apply for state approval to enter Phase 1.
In response to recent criticism, county commissioners and staff reiterated Friday that the county didn't have sufficient details from the state required to hire required contact tracing staff in the weeks leading up to Brown's relaxing of restrictions.
The staffing contracts will allow the county to do contact tracing for 95% of new cases within 24 hours, as required by the state to move to Phase 1 of reopening, officials said.
"Contact tracers will be talking with thousands of households daily, making sure they can quarantine to avoid spreading the disease in the community, and helping to facilitate the information about when quarantine can end for that individual and that family," Tricia Mortell, public health division manager for the county, told commissioners.
County officials also discussed how further coordination with Clackamas and Multnomah counties about reopening will be key to doing it safely.
Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties are the only counties in the state that have not yet applied to enter Phase 1 due to currently insufficient contact tracing capacities.
Mortell said the launch of a new state database that will allow tracking of COVID-19 cases' contacts across county lines will provide key information about the rate of spread throughout nearby communities.
"We are three communities in this Metro region who have a lot of cross-travel with our population," Mortell said.
The new database is expected to launch within the next two weeks, officials said.
As the county increases its testing, and standalone retail shops such as boutiques, jewelry shops and furniture stores reopen statewide to customers on May 15 per Brown's order, the number of cases of COVID-19 and the number of hospitalizations will increase, officials said.
"All the more reason why we need to be meticulous about washing our hands frequently, wearing our fabric face coverings when you're outside of your home, all the time when you're outside of your home, and if you have any symptoms, please stay home," Harrington said.
The county has launched a new page on its website that allows viewers to see whether the county is currently meeting state requirements to reopen. It also links people to public health information, testing sites and economic assistance.
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