State of Oregon: Meaningful steps taken, but many more are needed
Gov. Kate Brown and other Oregon leaders finally have taken some steps necessary to fight the health care and economic emergency confronting this state. But a great deal more must be done to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, bolster the capacity of our health-care system and assist those being hurt by abrupt and severe economic disruptions.
The first thing that needs to happen is for state and local leaders to fully grasp that the world has changed almost overnight. The bitterness they displayed two weeks ago over the best way to deal with long-term climate change must be pushed aside while the state does everything it can to save people's lives. The Legislature should meet in special session soon, via remote means, to display solidarity and show immediate attention to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, which poses a deadly threat to a large and vulnerable portion of the state's population.
For the rest of this year, we cannot imagine anything more urgent than to find ways to combat the virus and to provide an economic safety net to thousands of people who suddenly find themselves out of work. If Democrats and Republicans persist in gridlocking, as they did over cap-and-trade, while the virus rips through their communities, they will be placing politics above the safety of their constituents.
In the past week, the governor acted in meaningful ways to contain the virus by following the Washington state playbook: banning large events, canceling school and banning in-restaurant dining. On Monday, March 16, she also announced the state's health care systems would unite and share their resources against the virus. Based on plausible estimates of the number of people who might get the virus, and the percentage who would require hospitalization, it's clear that Oregon's hospital bed capacity could be overwhelmed.
As former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a physician, detailed in a blog post, the state — if it follows patterns seen in other nations — could have as many as 100,000 infections, requiring 15,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 intensive care stays. Oregon has a total of 6,729 staffed hospital beds and 776 ICU beds. Even if the number of expected infections is cut by half, Oregon doesn't have the capacity to handle all those patients at once.
That's why it's important to slow the spread of the virus to keep the peak number of cases manageable. It's also vital to be able to know, through accurate testing, who actually has coronavirus and who doesn't. Otherwise, precious resources could be misdirected.
To improve response, the state must move forward on several fronts:
• The Legislature must provide further emergency funding for both health care and economic support, and to show that Democrats and Republicans can put their differences aside long enough to deal with a crisis.
Toward that end, the Legislature's Special Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response has announced its first public meeting will be held Wednesday. Topics will include: Identifying actions to support low-income and vulnerable Oregonians and small businesses; protection from housing instability; sick leave and unemployment insurance; monitoring public health strategies; and making timely budget and policy recommendations to the Legislature. These are all good steps.
• The two-week school closure needs to be extended. The exact amount of time is uncertain, but the current plan to reopen schools after Spring Break is likely to be revised.
• Day care centers must be set up in the schools to care for the children of health-care workers, whose presence in clinics and hospitals will be needed more than ever.
• Oregon must find a way to implement mobile testing, which allows people to be swabbed from their cars, without entering health-care offices and infecting others.
• Both the state and local philanthropists must follow the lead of Bill Gates in Washington state and provide an influx of funding to boost testing.
The lack of testing is a severe problem that leads to wasteful outcomes. If health care professionals don't know whether they are dealing with a coronavirus patient, they are forced to use gowns, masks and other protective gear that are already in tremendously short supply — and the deluge of expected patients hasn't even hit yet. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of reagents needed to run diagnostic tests for the virus, as well as a shortfall of other medical equipment. This again compels a coordinated effort in Oregon to source and pay for the materials needed.
The main source of optimism regarding this viral outbreak is that it will be temporary. But just how temporary is the question. A vaccine is likely many months away, which means all Oregonians must be prepared for the unexpected for the remainder of this year.
Our state's leaders have scrambled to keep up with the fast pace of the virus's spread, and our Legislature can't even pull together a quorum. Oregon residents are seeing their health threatened, their jobs disappear and their communities at a standstill. They need actual leadership right now, and that requires public officials and health-care officials to act in a cohesive, coherent and reassuring manner. ?
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