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City manager: Clackamas County might need to build temporary structures like hand-washing stations without having to go through usual zoning-code procedures

Oregon City Manager Tony Konkol told elected officials on Friday, March 27, that he now has the authority to give permission to Clackamas County health officials to set up COVID-19 field hospitals within the city.

Hospital capacity to house a potential influx of patients having contracted the novel coronavirus is a statewide concern, and Clackamas County officials are looking for possible sites.

PMG FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - The 143-bed Providence Willamette Falls Hospital might not be large enough to house all of the COVID-19 patients in the area.Following a unanimous vote by commissioners, Konkol said that the city's newly declared emergency is meant to streamline regulations during the public-health crisis, but the county hasn't yet made a specific request. The ability to put up a field hospital was meant as a hypothetical example of an emergency response but there have so far been no requests from the county to the city. 

"This is more of an administrative function than a declaration of action at this point," Konkol said.

Konkol noted that the city has closed all its bathrooms, which created a public health issue for homeless people without access to running water. As an example of other types of partnerships under discussion, he said that Oregon City has been "working with the county to provide additional porta-potties and hand-washing stations throughout the community."

During the March 27 meeting, Oregon City hasn't declared a public health emergency, but rather has taken action to establish emergency policies and protocols that would allow for building temporary structures like a COVID-19 tent hospital or hand-washing stations within the city without having to go through the usual zoning-code procedures. This resolution has an end date of May 7, so commissioners can review this at their May 6 meeting, either extending the emergency declaration or letting it expire.

Konkol noted that the city has mutual aid agreements with neighboring agencies, but no request had been officially filed, as of the time of the city's emergency meeting on March 27. Oregon City's emergency declaration gives city staff latitude to coordinate COVID-19 response by redirecting funding for emergency use "as needed," implementing new mutual aid agreements with other public agencies and suspending standard procurement procedures.

"The city will partner with regional emergency services to help meet the needs of the health care system to address this pandemic," said Oregon City spokesperson Kristin Brown.

Art Johnson, the owner of the Oregon City Retirement Center on 10th Street, said that county officials asked him if they could explore the feasibility of renting his property to house COVID-19 patients.

"That building is under contract to be sold, so neither Clackamas County nor anyone else will be able to lease the building from me," Johnson said.

Johnson added that he asked the county for help relocating squatters who have taken up residence there.

"It is supposed to be unoccupied, but homeless have occupied the building, so I've been working with the county to get them relocated to Multnomah County," he said. "I made the decision not to discharge the homeless people into the community, because they're safe there. I could have gotten immediate eviction papers and pushed them into the street, but I didn't want to do that, for their sakes or for the community."

Johnson and the building's buyer, Portland resident Nile Hagen, have requested the city confirm the legality of the 50-resident care facility, originally built in the 1930s as the first hospital in Oregon City. The building transitioned to assisted living care in 1978, and Johnson said that he began vacating the building in January to allow for his retirement.

Hagen agreed that the building would be unsuitable for the county to house COVID-19 patients, not only because of the pending sale but also because the building needs a major renovation.

"It's not in the best condition, although it is OK structurally," Hagen said.

Once the building is renovated, Hagen said he hopes to reopen it for assisted living.

According to County Commissioner Ken Humberston, the Clackamas Town Center shopping mall is offering its parking lots to the county to use for staging areas, testing or temporary facilities.

This newspaper contacted Clackamas County officials about their interest in a COVID-19 emergency hospital, but they have not yet responded. This story will be updated online when a response is received.


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