Perhaps not since January has a topic grabbed the kind of attention in Columbia County as Sheriff Brian Pixley's letter to Gov. Kate Brown last month, slamming her decision-making and threatening not to enforce public health orders in the county.
Rather than enforcing Brown's emergency orders to protect the public health, Pixley is focused on playing politics and burnishing his own conservative credentials in a once-Democratic county that has swung markedly to the right over the past decade. That may be popular with many of Pixley's constituents, and it may be popular with quite a few of the Spotlight's readers. But it violates the public trust and puts people — and not just those who disagree with Pixley's decision — at risk.
Pixley's job is to uphold the constitution and protect the people of Columbia County. He's doing neither.
Pixley is not alone. In Marion County, the sheriff issued a similar letter, although he stopped short of saying his office would look the other way if businesses or schools don't mask up. In Eastern Oregon, some sheriffs used language similar to Pixley's letter, in some cases even more inflammatory.
As a handful of Oregon's sheriffs rush to issue these statements saying they refuse to enforce Brown's latest mask mandate, we have to wonder what point exactly they are trying to make.
We know precisely no one who expects sheriff's offices or any other law enforcement agency to become the mask police. Can you imagine the logistical chaos that would ensue if they did? If a single shopper at a grocery store defies the mask mandate, will someone call the sheriff or the local police department? There are not enough officers in all of Oregon to respond to such reports.
Pixley and his fellow travelers would be stating the obvious if they were just lamenting that they lack resources — the personnel — to enforce a mask requirement. Of course, they aren't being asked to do that anyway. Instead, they are clouding the matter with silly rhetoric about personal choice.
Their pronouncements are not helpful for the health of their communities, and their words may encourage people to make the wrong decision when it comes to stopping the spread of the delta variant in Oregon.
Here's the thing about combating a deadly virus: Many decisions we would normally regard as personal instead affect the entire community. That's because the preventative measures an individual can take — wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, avoiding crowds or social settings — are not 100% guaranteed effective. But as more people take preventative measures, their effectiveness overlaps to form a shield that protects the community as a whole.
Think of the Greek phalanx. An individual hoplite has a shield that faces forward and a spear he can point in one direction at a time. When he is surrounded, alone, by enemies, his shield and spear are insufficient to protect him. That's why hoplites fought in a phalanx formation. By staying together and working toward a common purpose, they form barriers on all sides, protecting the entire unit and posing a far more formidable challenge than they would have if they all charged pell-mell.
And here's the other thing about combating a deadly virus: At no point in this pandemic has the situation in Oregon been as dire as it is right now. Columbia County doesn't have any hospitals of its own, so people in need of intensive care here need to go to Hillsboro or Portland or Longview, Washington, for treatment. Those intensive care units are practically at capacity.
In short, if you need intensive care — whether you are desperately ill with COVID-19, or another disease, or you've been in a terrible wreck, or there has been a horrific accident on the farm, or you have been bit by a rabid animal — there is no guarantee, right now, that you will be admitted in time to receive lifesaving treatment.
Right now. Right here, in the United States of America. In Oregon. In Columbia County.
That worries us. We wish it worried our sheriff more.
The wisdom of wearing a mask during this pandemic is well established by science, showing that face coverings significantly reduce the rate of transmission. The efficacy of vaccines — now starting to get full and final approval from the FDA —also is well documented. Masks and vaccines, when combined, will go a long way toward ending the scourge that is stretching hospital intensive care units to capacity.
People are dying, and it's not just from the coronavirus. Because hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients, other people in need of critical care aren't getting it as quickly as they should.
Columbia County continues to lag behind most other counties in western Oregon when it comes to vaccination rates. That leaves this community especially vulnerable to the virus, especially people who have not yet been immunized.
Regardless of Pixley's stance, we continue to strongly encourage our readers to get vaccinated, mask up, and show other people the same kindness and consideration you would like them to show to you. We can only turn the tide of this pandemic together. That means making smart, responsible choices now — choices that will save lives in the long run.
All elected leaders, including sheriffs, must do everything they can to promote responsible behavior. If they dislike the governor, that's perfectly acceptable. So do many of our readers. This editorial board has had our own issues with the governor's policies ourselves — in fact, we endorsed Brown's opponent in 2018.
The old saying, too often ignored in our hyper-charged partisan environment, is that politics ought to stop at the water's edge. We believe that. And we believe just as strongly that politics ought to be set aside when it comes to responding to an emergency like this pandemic. The virus doesn't care whether we're Republicans, Democrats, Independents or none of the above. And by couching his office's response to this emergency in political rhetoric, Pixley does a disservice to an office that voters chose to declare nonpartisan. That is a shame.
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