Rural Oregon looks for way out of pandemic shutdown
By the week of May 4, Gov. Kate Brown could have a firm plan for reopening parts of Oregon's economy, probably starting with rural counties.
Brown told county commissioners across the state Monday, April 20, during a conference call that she would have a detailed reopening plan within weeks.
"Commissioners are under tremendous pressure in their counties to reopen for business," Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said. "I felt like it's actually progressing. The conversation about opening up, with the notable exception of large groups, is almost progressing more quickly than I had anticipated.
"Now, by moving right along, we're talking about mid-May or so."
Brown expects to release a draft plan within a week. It will not contain dates for when businesses might reopen and social distancing restrictions might be eased. Instead, it will require meeting criteria that Brown announced in mid-April, combined with President Donald Trump's recommendations.
Each Oregon county also would have to certify that it had adequate hospital beds to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases and sufficient personal protective equipment for medical personnel and first responders.
Living with the virus
Unlike in some states, Brown is focusing on a regional approach.
"The main thing the governor told us is that there clearly are counties, particularly in Eastern Oregon and Southeastern Oregon, that have zero cases or maybe one case, and they should be prioritized for reopening in a way that's consistent with maintaining public health," said Nik Blosser, Brown's chief of staff. "So how quickly can we do that and what's the framework we need for them?"
Blosser said the governor's medical advisory panel was working through plans on comprehensive testing, contact tracing and isolating people with coronavirus; allowing non-emergency medical and dental procedures to resume; and the specific metrics required statewide and regionally for that reopening to recur.
"Our hospitals in rural Oregon are really hurting right now. They need to get back to work, both for their income but also for all those people who need their hip replaced, bypass surgery, all that stuff."
Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer said he knew of no Oregon county that was yet meeting all criteria laid out by Trump for initial reopening. Dannenhoffer is a member of Brown's panel but emphasized his views were his own, not the panels.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, noted that new cases of COVID-19 are declining in Deschutes County but the coronavirus would not disappear for a long time. "We need to learn how to live with the virus and still continue on. The current shutdown and having 300,000 Oregonians essentially unemployed because of it is completely unsustainable and is going to cause serious problems — catastrophic problems, I would say — with the state being able to fund important programs," he said. "I think we really need to look at a county-by-county opening of the state."
Rural pilot project
Oregon Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, agreed that the state must learn to maintain both public health and a healthy economy. The place to start is with rural health care.
"Our hospitals in rural Oregon are really hurting right now. They need to get back to work, both for their income but also for all those people who need their hip replaced, bypass surgery, all that stuff," he said.
Two Eastern Oregon lawmakers proposed using Harney County as a pilot project, citing its lack of COVID-19 cases, its small population and its isolation from other communities.
"This is not a proposal to open businesses. This is a proposal to recognize the health hazards and the health risks and work through those and mitigate restrictions and allow people to return to some of their prior freedoms," said Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.
He and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, put together a proposal that includes ideas for how the community could mitigate health risks and how specific types of businesses could enforce social distancing.
"We've got a little more work to do it, but not a lot. And we hope we can get the governor to agree with running a pilot," Findley said. "If we can't make a pilot work there, we can't make it work anywhere."
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