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Cris Waller: Clackamas County commissioners seek to deny the grim reality that Oregon now faces

At the Thursday, Aug. 12, meeting of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, a dark side of our county was on display.Cris Waller

After urging from numerous right-wing, anti-mask and anti-vaccination groups, {obj:56045:protesters filled the meeting room}, spilling out into the hallways.

For two hours, they railed about nonexistent vaccine passports and mandates, made racist anti-immigrant statements, threatened anyone who might try to enforce a mask mandate, and, over and over, repeated false and damaging anti-vaccine, anti-mask propaganda that has been spread by right-wing sources and Russian disinformation campaigns.

You would expect that our commissioners would be appalled and concerned by this disturbing behavior and would do everything in their power to extinguish the blaze of misinformation and support sensible public health measures.

You would be very, very wrong.

Chair Tootie Smith made it very plain where her sympathies lay. She beamed at the screaming crowd, soothed them when they stumbled over their words, and, before public testimony began, roused them with a speech designed to inflame their anger toward the state government and masks.

Normally, in order to speak, one must sign up within five minutes of the meeting's start. Those in person testify, then those on Zoom.

At this meeting, unsurprisingly, those who wished to speak in favor of public health were on Zoom, not in the room packed with the unmasked and unvaccinated. Once this became apparent, Chair Smith interrupted the Zoom testimony to break the protocol, take more cards from the in-person crowd and allow them to continue their ranting — no doubt hoping that the Zoom callers would drop off after two hours of waiting patiently to speak.

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Mark Shull praised the crowd, calling them "patriots" and congratulating them for speaking. Commissioner Martha Schrader, the lone voice of sanity from the county commission that evening, spoke in support of masks and vaccination to shouts and catcalls, then had to be escorted out by public-safety officers after the meeting ended.

Two weeks ago, when I testified before the county commission, Chair Smith turned my microphone off when I stated, "Anti-vaccination propaganda is killing people." She also has silenced other speakers, including a retired nurse, when they attempted to correct the record on vaccine misinformation.

At the last policy meeting, Smith announced that all COVID questions from staff must go through her, and that no commissioner may discuss COVID during their commissioner commentary.

In recent meetings, she expressed a mistaken belief that the vaccine causes COVID and that hospitals and their staff are not really suffering. Meanwhile, Commissioner Shull attended and supported a meeting of anti-mask, anti-vaccination parents and reposted racist memes blaming COVID on immigrants.

Smith and Shull seek to deny the grim reality that Oregon now faces — hospitals so overwhelmed that the National Guard has been sent to assist them, untold suffering and deaths that could have been prevented.

Studies show that the vocal anti-vaccine activists are a tiny minority of our population. Most of us are getting vaccinated, wearing masks, doing the responsible things for ourselves and all those around us. That some of our county commissioners would not only allow but encourage deadly anti-vaccine hysteria is inexcusable.

Clackamas County has suffered enough from fire and ice. We do not need our commissioners to aid and abet a plague as well.

Cris Waller is a resident of Jennings Lodge in unincorporated Clackamas County.

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