Multnomah County still figuring out how to reopen economy
Although 31 of 36 Oregon counties have been approved to begin reopening their economies, Multnomah County — the economic engine of the state — still does not know how much money it needs to successfully apply for permission.
The Multnomah County Commission spent two hours discussing its plans to meet the requirements set by the Oregon Health Authority for Phase 1 reopening. That would allow such shuttered businesses as restaurant dining rooms and hair dressers to resume serving customers with social distancing and other restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Presentations were made by Public Health Director Rachael Banks, Communicable Disease Director Kim Toevs, and Emergency Management Director Chris Voss. Among other things, they told the board it will cost between $25 and $35 million to hire enough "contact tracers" to track down all the people who have come in contact with those who are infected.
But the board was also told state authorities have said the county does not have to actually hire them, just demonstrate the ability to do so during new outbreaks. Banks said the county was still in discussions with the state over its minimum requirements.
The issue is complicated by a requirement approved by the county that the tracing staff should reflect the demographics of the county, although this does not necessary mean exact racial and ethnic percentages. Banks said county staff had prepared some breakdowns she would share with the board after the briefing.
The board was also told the county needs to open more facilities where residents can be tested for COVID-19, including one or two in mid-county, where traditionally undersevered communities live. The budget for such facilities is still being prepared.
The briefing ended without anyone providing a specific estimate on the funding needed to meet the requirements or proposing a deadline for applying to the state for Phase 1 reopening permission. County officials are scheduled to brief the Portland City Council on their plans at 11:15 a.m. Thursday, May 20.
Portland has received $114 million in emergency federal stimulus funds from Congress compared to $28 million for Multnomah County. Last Friday, County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said Portland should share some of that money with the county. The issue was not discussed during the briefing, however.
Toward the end of the meeting, Commissioner Sharon Meieran expressed frustration that the state and county had not yet required widespread COVID-19 testing in nursing homes, despite the fact that a disproportionate number of deaths have occurred in those facilities. Meieran said the Multnomah County Counsel had told her the county has the legal authority to require regular testing of staff and patients to prevent the spread of the disease.
Toevs said it would be expensive for the county to pay for such testing without being at least partly reimbursed by the nursing home owners. Both she and Meieran said they will discuss the issue further.
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