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Jefferson County leaders want to reopen but also need more COVID-19 vaccinations

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER - Scott Stuart, spokesperson for We the People, makes his case to Jefferson County Commissioners that the state exagerates the danger of COVID and overreaches its authority by closing businesses.

COVID-19 "extreme risk" status pressures Jefferson County from both sides. Wednesday, Feb. 3, citizens and businesses pleaded with county commissioners to give them "sanctuary" from the restrictions that keep restaurants and gyms closed to indoor service.

"To me, this is an emergency to get my business open," said Lynnelle Morgan, owner of Over the Edge Taphouse on the Crooked River Ranch.

"Why are we being held hostage?" said Scott Stuart, spokesman for a group called We the People. "Four-point-two million Oregonians are being held hostage to wear masks, social distance and locking down our businesses."

Yet, despite the extreme risk status, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has cut off the county's supply of vaccines, diverting the doses to more populous counties that have not progressed as far through their vaccine priority list.

"How are we supposed to get over this?" says Jefferson County Commissioner Kelly Simmelink. "Our people are just as important as any other people."

Michael Baker, the county's Public Health director, says the doses the county has on hand are all spoken for and will run out Friday, Feb. 12. Public Health has a 36-page waiting list of people who want the vaccine. OHA will supply only second doses for people who have begun the vaccine series.

"We've moved forward ahead of the governor's guidelines," says Baker, "firmly believing that a vaccine in the freezer is a wasted vaccine."

According to the OHA timeline, counties were not to begin vaccinating people age 80 and older until this week.

Jefferson County had less than expected demand for the vaccine from educators, so Public Health began vaccinating people age 80 and older last week. People age 75 and older from Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties got vaccines at a clinic held at the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center.

Friday, Feb. 5, the Central Oregon Public Health Department reported Jefferson County has 573 people fully vaccinated, and another 1,879 have received their first doses, which together accounts for a little more than 10% of the population.

"We're in an extreme category," says County Commissioner Wayne Fording. "All of those things scream that we need vaccines."

Jefferson County ranks fourth worst in Oregon in terms of the rate of cases, 7,499 cases per 100,000. That is twice the rate of infection as the more populous Multnomah County.

Commissioners argued their case for more vaccines in a letter to OHA Director Patrick Allen. The letter points out that deaths in Jefferson County (25) "had been experienced by the very populations identified by the Oregon COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory committee as being disproportionally impacted and in need for prioritization in the state." (See the entire letter on the Pioneer's Editorial page.)

Of the 25 deaths, 19 are from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which gets its vaccine from the Indian Health Service, not from the State of Oregon.

While commissioners lobby for more vaccines because the pandemic is hitting Jefferson County so hard, the people angling to open businesses downplay the illness.

"Here's the pandemic:" said Stuart, "It's a false fear that the virus is any more deadly than the common flu."

Stuart calls COVID an elderly disease. "The average age of a person who dies with COVID is 75. The average life span is 78. It is an elderly disease for those who have co-morbidities."

About a dozen supporters of Stuart stood around the room shoulder to shoulder, without masks, unified behind the idea Jefferson should become a sanctuary county, somehow protected from having to comply with state restrictions that close businesses.

"If I weren't up here (on commissioner's platform)," said Fording, "I'd be sitting out there with you." Fording owns a business and sympathizes with people losing money during the shutdown.

The commissioners have already petitioned Gov. Kate Brown to ease up on restrictions and allow businesses to open while following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.

Simmelink, commission chair, says he and his colleagues need research before entertaining the idea of becoming a sanctuary county.

As case numbers in the county and across the state begin to fall, numbers may drop below the extreme risk threshold, which would ease restrictions on businesses without intervention.

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