Dozens of issues at play as commissioners, staff discuss best path forward for region to combat COVID-19, economic downturn

CLACKAMAS COUNTY — With 33 of Oregon's 36 counties pushing efforts to reopen their economies beginning this Friday, May 15, Clackamas County officials aren't holding their breath that they'll be first in line.

In fact, it could be another month before Clackamas County takes its first steps toward reopening during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.

During a webinar Monday hosted by the North Clackamas Chamber, County Administrator Gary Schmidt was asked to give a timeline of when the county might reopen.

He was reluctant to provide any specifics, but did offer that it will not be this Friday.

However, Commissioner Martha Schrader suggested — with a "big maybe" attached — that Clackamas County could see its reopening plan implemented around June 15.

But first, staff within the county's emergency operations center will need to finish that plan.

The Board of County Commissioners expect to receive that document Friday and will potentially be voting to approve it at their work session meeting on Tuesday, May 19. The commissioners and the county's professional staff are grappling with more than a dozen issues at play in the discussion over reopening the county. Clackamas is one of three counties including Washington and Multnomah that have yet to submit their plans to Gov. Kate Brown's office, and that's partially due to the county being tied to the health region.

Along with the seven guidelines Brown's office has handed down each county must meet before their reopening plan can be considered for approval, some similar prerequisites — such as hospital capacity — have to be met across the region as well.

According to the governor's office, a county that has finalized its own plan can submit and be approved for reopening if the region as a whole has met certain requirements. Those include:

-- A declining percentage of emergency department visits for COVID-19-like illnesses, and one that is less than the historic average for flu at the same time of year.

-- The ability to administer COVID-19 testing at a rate of 30 per 10,000 people per week and maintain a certain number of testing sites to accommodate their population.

-- Having a minimum of 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 people and be prepared to trace 95% of all new cases within 24 hours.

-- Having hotel rooms for people who test positive and can't self-isolate.

-- Adherence to statewide guidelines to protect employees and consumers.

-- The ability to accommodate a 20% increase in suspected or confirmed cases compared to when the governor's executive order was issued.

-- Having a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at all large hospitals, and a 14-day supply at small and rural hospitals.

Being one of the state's most populous counties and yet also comprising a vast rural area has made Clackamas County a tough case in terms of drafting a reopening plan.

Initially, the commissioners thought the county's plan would be strictly tied to its metro neighbors. But in reality they're finding that might not be feasible to align efforts 100%.

"Our goal was to reopen together, that's not necessarily what's going to occur," said Jim Bernard, county chair. "We're not going to disadvantage Clackamas County because of the others. We're listening to Dr. Sarah Present, and we're listening to Nancy Bush and her team, as well as the Regional Disaster Preparedness Organization's health folks."

One of the biggest fears held by the board of commissioners is that Clackamas County opens up and sees a large spike in the number of new cases of novel coronavirus. That would put major stress on the county's hospitals and health systems which are already preparing for a second wave.

Commissioner Ken Humberston pointed out during Monday's webinar that some of the counties within the health region Clackamas belongs to — including Multnomah, Washington, Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook — don't have their own hospitals, meaning a surge in the number of cases would put further stress on facilities in the metro area.

"All of that complicates how quickly we'll be able to move and can take us backwards if we're not careful," Humberston said. "So encouraging businesses, in particular, and everybody that you know to follow the personal protocol with masks, distancing and cleaning, will help us get where we want to go."

Commissioner Paul Savas said that as a longtime business owner, he empathizes with those who are having to completely overhaul the way they do business. He agreed with Humberston that it's imperative that businesses take these steps to gain the confidence of both their employees and customers that it's safe to come in their doors.

Savas also said he wants everyone to keep in mind that we're all in this together, and regional coordination will be key to coming out the other end without a major spike in new cases.

"If one county perhaps sees a spike, suddenly we (all) come below that threshold for regional hospital capacity, and that brings everyone back down to right where we are today," he said. "So whether it's the counties, the cities and everyone in between, I want to stress that we have got to maintain the number-one criteria of these prerequisites, and that's the declining prevalence of COVID-19."

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