The Washington County Board of Commissioners reviewed, but didn't move to adopt, a plan to re-open the county at a work session on Tuesday, May 12.
The draft plan was discussed days after Gov. Kate Brown's announcement that counties could apply starting May 8 to begin a three-phase approach to gradually, and conditionally, lift COVID-19-related restrictions on in-person activities for businesses, personal service providers, retailers and public spaces.
The county's plan outlines how the Washington County Emergency Operations Center and other county departments will assist businesses, healthcare providers, community service providers and vulnerable groups in following public health guidelines during the re-opening process.
Currently, the county is meeting, or has the capacity to meet, all state re-opening prerequisites except one: contact tracing, for which Chair Kathryn Harrington says it won't be able to meet the state's standards for at least a couple more weeks.
The county expects to employ the necessary number of trained contact tracers by early to mid-June. At that time, if other prerequisites continue to be met, the county could submit its plan to the state for approval and enter "Phase 1" of re-opening.
Marni Kuyl, director of Washington County Health and Human Services, said county officials plan to ask the board for approval of two contracts with outside organizations to bring in additional contact tracers soon.
The county plans to staff 90 contact tracers, along with 40 to 50 other support staff, to meet contact tracing requirements. The county currently has 40 people working on contact tracing, according to Mary Sawyers, communications coordinator for Washington County Public Health.
Kuyl said county staff will be ready to bring the contracts for board approval within a week, adding the board could schedule an emergency board meeting to start the hiring process as soon as possible.
The board could move to adopt the county's final re-opening plan at that time, Kuyl said.
After adopting the plan, county public health staff will review whether the county is meeting prerequisites to move to Phase 1 and recommend the county administrator apply to the state for approval.
After announcing the mid-June timeline to meet contact tracing requirements, county officials received criticism from local elected leaders, who said the county has known for weeks it would need to add substantial numbers of contact tracers.
Referring to the criticism, Roy Rogers, commissioner for District 3, asked Kuyl to explain why the county doesn't have the required number of contact tracers.
Although the county knew broadly it would need to substantially increase contact tracing staff, Kuyl said, the county didn't have specific guidelines for new contact tracing procedures and the required number of contact tracers.
"The simple explanation is we have been working as fast as we can to find the people with the skills to do this, but the bottom line is if we don't do this well, none of the rest of the plan matters because there will be an explosion of cases, people will begin being hospitalized again and people will die," Kuyl said.
She added that the county has been working with the state on the implementation of new contact tracing training modules to standardize operations.
According to state guidelines, social distancing measures and requirements for facial coverings and sanitation will persist even as restaurants, salons, gyms, retail stores and parks re-open during Phase 1, Kuyl said.
"It could be a lot of people who would need to go back into quarantine if they're exposed to a positive case," she said. "The EOC's role in this plan is to support. We're not going to review every single business plan."
The goal is to prevent being required to move back to a lower phase or even a full lockdown as the county closely monitors additional cases, Kuyl said.
"My worst nightmare is that we transition into Phase 1 and then a week later see a prolonged spike and so we have to shut down again," Harrington said. "It would be awful to be in Phase 2 and have to go back to Phase 1, or even worse to back from Phase 1 to shut down."
The only counties that have not applied to the state to enter Phase 1 are Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties, where the vast majority of cases have been.
Harrington said the boards of commissioners in Clackamas and Multnomah counties are reviewing plans for re-opening this week and similarly do not yet have sufficient contact tracing staff.
Commissioners agreed coordination with Clackamas and Multnomah counties will be key to re-opening safely but they didn't decide on whether they would apply to the state to re-open with the nearby counties in concert.
Wary of re-opening with the two other counties in concert, Jerry Willey, commissioner for District 4, said the county will face sharp criticism from the business community if Washington County is ready to re-open but decides to wait for its neighbors.
"I am concerned about unilaterally aligning with them," Willey said. "If we had to wait a week for them to catch up, we're going to hear it loud and clear from our business community."
Harrington noted the potential for a surge in cases if one of the three counties were to be flooded by people from the other counties patronizing recently re-opened businesses or activities.
"I don't think we should be opening consequences-be-damned," Harrington said. "I do think we need to continue to try to move forward on a regional approach and see in the coming week or so how our fellow counties measure up."
Kuyl also noted in an interview with KOIN 6 News, a partner of the Pamplin Media Group, that Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties have many residents in the workforce who live in one county and commute into another.
"Our three counties have a long tradition of working together. Disease like COVID don't know the boundaries between the different counties," Kuyl told KOIN 6 News. "It's important that we are working together and we are aligned in order to make sure we are safe and healthy when we reopen."
KOIN 6 News, a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group, contributed to this report. Read KOIN's story here.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.