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The local county chairs say they intend to reopen safely and lack funds to track coronavirus.

PORTLAND BUSINESS ALLIANCE - Clackamas Chair Jim Bernard, Portland Business Alliance official Andrew Hoan, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington and Multnomah Chair Deborah Kafoury spoke about reopening plans on Friday afternoon.They're moving to reopen their counties as fast as they can — but want to do it right, and may need funding.

That was the message the elected leaders of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties provided in an online chat Friday, May 15, hosted by the Portland Business Alliance for its members and others.

On Thursday, May 14, Gov. Kate Brown announced that 31 out of 33 counties that applied to enter the first stage of the state's reopening were approved. But the three Oregon counties surrounding the city of Portland did not even apply, saying they were not yet ready and needed to hire and train staff to monitor and control the disease.

On Friday, however, it sounded like Clackamas could move toward, changing its status as soon as Tuesday, while Washington County is not far behind.

"Our goal is to decide on Tuesday whether to (apply) on the 22nd," said Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard. "Now, this does not mean we're opening. This means we're putting in the application."

Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington said, "Just today we had an emergency meeting, to approve contracts to bring on upwards of 142 new folks, everything from epidemiologist to nurses, data analysts and data entry. … I hope that we'll have those new staff members on board and trained within the next two or three weeks so we can reopen."

Still, even if approved by the state, Washington County will wait until "the numbers tell us" it's safe to proceed, Harrington said, adding that she's been watching them obsessively. "What are the numbers of cases? What are the trends? How are we doing with hospitalizations?"

Multnomah County is moving as fast as it can to hire contract tracers who are culturally competent, but will be cautious and monitor the health and safety situation carefully, because "we don't want this opening to benefit some at the expense of others," said Chair Deborah Kafoury.

Her administration intends to watch how the governor's Thursday announcement affects the spread of the disease, Kafoury said, noting the immediate reopening of childcare and most retail stores — excluding shopping centers and malls — will lead to a significant increase in travel and interactions.

"There's a lot of contact (caused by that announcement) that didn't happen yesterday. So we are going to be watching very carefully our numbers to see how this … affects the county moving forward," she said.

Bernard echoed Kafoury in her cautious tone, saying that he didn't think the state should have opened up retail stores so soon.

"A virus doesn't stop at the borders, so we have to be very careful," he said. "I was a little surprised that the retail opened up. … I would have rather waited for all of us to be ready, before we started opening the doors, but I understand the challenge."

The three chairs recently learned from the governor's office that they don't actually have to have hired the necessary contact tracers in order to be approved to begin reopening. Rather, they just need to have a plan in place to hire as many as needed in order to be able to identify and contact people who may be infected within the time frame required by the state.

That is more difficult than it sounds, they added.

Said Harrington, "We're committed to make sure that we hire bilingual, bicultural, multicultural folks, who reside right here in Washington County, we're going to need to not only hire them, but train them on the new tools, make sure they're all set up and good to go … we have to make sure that they're able to do the level of tracing 95% of the new cases within 24 hours. And we know with the new retail opening starting today, that there's going to be far more interaction of people with one another. That means we're expecting not only the volume of contact tracing to go up, but also the level of complexity."

Kafoury said one other issue that may slow Multnomah County from opening up is cost, such as for new homeless shelters to accomodate social distancing, and renting motel rooms to isolate people from group living situations. "We have estimated that in order to fulfill what the criteria that the governor's prerequisites have set out for us, it's going to cost us about $75 million for the next year … frankly, we don't have the money now."

She said she's in negotiations with the state and the city of Portland to get that money.

"If our counties aren't open, then the state really isn't open. We are the economic engine of this state. And it's crucial if we're going to get people back to work and we're going to keep people safe, that we have the ability to do that and that we have the dollars that we need."

Bernard said Clackamas is facing a similar situation, and he asked Brown earlier that day whether the state will help fund contact tracing in small counties with populations under 500,000.

"We needed some assurance that if we put these people on, we're going to get compensated for it," he said. "I'm not sure what's going to come out of that."

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