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Portland metro region to ask Gov. Kate Brown to reevaluate reopening criteria

FILE PHOTO - Clackamas Board of County CommissionersClackamas County commissioners are positioning, along with Multnomah and Washington counties, to ask Gov. Kate Brown to reevaluate the metrics used by the state for reopening the economy and restarting in-person learning.

According to Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard, the chairs of each of the three counties and public health officials met via Zoom this week to discuss growing dejection over what many feel are unattainable goals laid out by Brown and the Oregon Health Authority. FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County

"We talked about where we are, and, frankly, where we are is going nowhere," Bernard told his fellow board members Thursday, Oct. 1. "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 move to petition the state to reevaluate its road map to reopening comes as both Clackamas County and the region struggle to meet the six public health indicators that would allow them to move forward. Public health officials said last week that spread from Labor Day gatherings and movement caused by evacuation orders due to wildfires both contributed to high infection numbers the past two weeks, including an increased rate of cases that can't be traced to a known source.

Bernard said that he's in favor of looking at new metrics that would apply to the metro area — which is tied together as a health region — in order to begin in-person learning in local schools, as well as to move the economy into Phase 2 reopening.

"We have an urban divide that needs to be looked at differently, so we've asked Dr. Sarah Present (county health officer), Philip Mason-Joyner (county health director) and folks from the other counties to look at what we can do to move forward," Bernard said.

Present, Mason-Joyner and their counterparts in Multnomah and Washington counties are being given two to three weeks to look at challenges and barriers currently facing the metro region in meeting the governor's metrics, how those metrics might be changed to provide a more holistic picture of how the region is combating the spread of COVID-19 and what steps must be taken next to achieve those new goals to move closer to reopening.

Currently, only Malheur County and the metro region are still in Phase 1.

"It's apparent to me, and the rest of us, that we're never going to get out of this cycle until we can do something different, so we need to work together with the state and convince the state that our metrics need to be fixed," Bernard said. "It's our responsibility to tell the governor that there is a difference between the three counties and the rest of the state, and we need to show those differences."

Commissioner Ken Humberston agreed with Benard, saying that he feels strongly that the most important metric is adequate hospital capacity to ensure a spike in infection would not overrun area hospitals or endanger the region's ability to take care of those people who contract the virus who are in the worst possible condition.

"Right now we have more vacancies in our intensive care units and more ventilators than we did several months ago," Humberston said. "All the evidence suggests the virus is going to be with us for a while, in fact, some of the evidence suggests that it may be one of those things like the flu that we're going to deal with fairly periodically, so I would suggest that the number-one metric should be making sure our hospital systems are not in danger of overloading."

Commissioner Paul Savas echoed Humberston in calling for more focus on hospital capacity.

"We've learned a lot, but these Phase 2 indicators are, frankly, not the right indicators. They just aren't," he said. "I really think that the state has to step up its game and have metrics that apply to where we are today and what we've learned."

Commissioner Sonya Fischer said she appreciates that the county's health officials and emergency operations staff have followed the best available science, history and new information throughout this COVID-19 saga to inform the board's decisions as best they can. She said she'll continue to put her trust in them as they make the best decision for Clackamas County and the region moving forward.

"I don't want to go backwards based on political pressure. We have to thread this needle carefully and make sure we don't put our community into crisis because if we do, we're hurting our economy so much more than if we are planful and constructive," Fischer said.

Commissioner Martha Schrader posed the question of how much different Phase Two is from Phase One, and whether or not the county and region's desire to join the rest of the state in Phase Two is misguided.

Bernard said that Clackamas County and the region really aren't looking at moving into Phase Two, rather more like something in between.

"We're looking at moving into Phase 1.2, or 1.5 — or a slow pace towards Phase Two, but yes they are significantly different in the size of groups and what kind of facilities are open," he said.

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