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‘The political will is not there’: As COVID-19 rages, Oregon takes mostly hands-off approach

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown spoke at a “Reopening Oregon” celebration at Providence Park on June 30. As part of Brown’s work to reduce prison sentences for dozens of people in Oregon’s prisons, she is meeting via Zoom with prisoners who advocates suggest are ready for release.  (Dave Killen/Oregonian)
By Aimee Green The Oregonian

Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to hand off COVID-19 safeguards to individual counties has led to widespread inaction by local leaders during a pivotal fifth wave, which is threatening to become Oregon’s worst of the pandemic.

The delta variant is overtaking the country and Oregon, leading to huge spikes in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and prompting the federal government last week to recommend indoor masking for the hardest hit areas – which includes 35 of 36 local counties.

The Oregonian/OregonLive surveyed all of those counties this week about their plans to use mandates to fend off COVID-19.

Of the 23 counties that responded, nearly all indicated they were concerned. But none has issued mask mandates for the general public or turned to other tools, such as limiting capacity within businesses or requiring vaccinations. A few have taken minimal action, such as requiring face coverings indoors for their own employees.

Several public health officials told The Oregonian/OregonLive they would like to push for stronger measures, but they feel powerless because of the enormous retribution they might face — from county leaders who have the ability to hire or fire them, and a public weary of the past 17 months of pandemic restrictions and more than willing to direct their anger at them.

Their responses underscore a new reality: Unlike any other wave of the pandemic, this time there is no clear plan.

“Everyone’s just kind of saying, ‘You should mandate it,’ ‘No, you should mandate it,’ ‘No, you should,’” said Maureen Hoatlin, a retired Oregon Health & Science University professor who specialized in virology. “It’s been given to the counties to decide. Well, they don’t want to. So I guess we’re giving up.”

Kim Repp, Washington County’s chief epidemiologist, believes there’s a lack of political will to mandate what’s necessary. At some point, however, she suspects COVID-19 will clobber Oregon to the point state government will need to act.

“Honest to God, no politician is going to sign up for those pitchforks without the state or the governor stepping in, and right now we don’t have it,” Repp said. “Even though we know scientifically that mask mandates and vaccine mandates would end this, the political will is not there.”

Oregon’s summer surge has already surpassed its spring surge and is now closing in on last fall’s numbers. Oregon has been considered a success story throughout the pandemic, with some of the lowest case and death rates nationally. But amid the delta surge, Oregon ranks squarely in the middle for new cases based on population.

The state on Tuesday reported 1,575 new confirmed or presumed coronavirus infections, one of its highest totals ever, pushing the daily average for the week to more than 900. Nearly 380 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19, marking the highest levels since January.

Southern Oregon, with low vaccination rates, is seeing an outsized share of people severely sick and hospitalized. Officials in Josephine County, which combined with Jackson County has the second highest rate of residents hospitalized for COVID-19, is encouraging but not mandating safer behaviors.

“We’ve put out notices on Facebook, press releases that mention masking,” said Josephine County’s public health director, Mike Weber “We’re going to put out another press releases soon talking about the value of masking and social distancing.’

Brown, who lifted a statewide mask mandate June 30, doubled-down Tuesday on her hands-off approach of allowing local control over the pandemic – arguing that “locally driven response efforts are the most effective,” according to governor’s spokesman Charles Boyle. But Brown has made at least two interventions, requiring masks once again in state government buildings and K-12 schools – drawing fire from some parents who think the schools’ mandate is an overreach.

It’s unclear how effectively interventions such as mandatory masking in all indoor public settings would be – that is, if fatigued Oregonians would comply and how successful such a measure would be at stemming spread. The delta variant is more far transmissible than earlier versions, although one model predicts the number of COVID-19 patients in Oregon’s hospitals could nearly triple — to the highest levels of the pandemic so far — if a universal mask mandate isn’t put in place.

Boyle said the governor is “incredibly concerned” about the ballooning number of hospitalized patients – a number that is well above the threshold that in April prompted her to institute strict county-by-county measures such as shutting down indoor dining in restaurants. But Boyle said the governor believes vaccinations are the “best defense” against the delta variant, and that’s achieved best through one-on-one conversations at “the local level” between friends, family and doctors.

“Counties, cities, and employers also have the ability to institute their own safety measures and requirements, and we expect local leaders in areas most impacted by COVID-19 to take action,” Boyle said in an email.

Some local leaders have made their intentions crystal clear. In Clackamas County, daily cases are up 60% in the past week.

County chairwoman Tootie Smith’s response to the idea of a mask mandate?

“Hell no!” she tweeted. She was one of two commissioners on the five-member board who did not don a mask at Tuesday’s board meeting.

There are many reasons Oregon counties haven’t instituted mandatory COVID-19 safety measures. Many told the newsroom they prefer the local control granted by Brown.

Katie Plumb, Crook County’s public health director, said she believes a mask mandate is completely off the table. She isn’t sure county commissioners will formally approve even a simple recommendation.

“People are tired of being told what to do,” Plumb said.

They’re also tired of masks. She said she was the only person wearing a mask during her trip to the grocery store earlier this week.

Plumb believes a mask mandate must come from the state. She said the state also has more power to enforce the mandate, such as by penalizing restaurants or employers who don’t abide by it.

One rural Oregon county public health official, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash, said after recommending that students wear masks in school — but not calling for a mandate — the public deluged the official with irate emails and letters.

Days later, the governor announced a universal mask requirement in all K-12 schools, taking the heat off the official.

“It’s a lot of pressure from people we know,” the official said. “We’re a small department. We’re in a small county. And sometimes it’s just easier if it (a mandate) comes from the state.”

The official added that it’s tough to avoid all the backlash “when everyone knows your home phone number.”

Local governments or states in some other areas of the country have taken far more sweeping action. Residents of Louisiana, Washington D.C. and nearly half of California are under or soon will be under indoor mask mandates regardless of vaccination status, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that vaccinated people who become infected can spread the disease just as easily as the unvaccinated.

New York City announced Tuesday that it’ll soon require patrons of restaurants, gyms and theaters to show proof of vaccination to enter.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s Klamath County was one of only two where officials polled by the newsroom said they aren’t concerned about local coronavirus spread.

“I’d say concern is not a word we’d use right now,” said Valeree Lane, a spokesperson for Klamath County Public Health, which has been categorized by the CDC as experiencing substantial spread. Cases there have grown 52% in the past two weeks, considerably slower than the statewide average — so far.

Lane said Klamath County commissioners are in the midst of dealing with two other crises — scores of wells that have run dry because of extreme drought and the Bootleg wildfire, the largest in the nation. None of the commissioners were available for interviews with The Oregonian/OregonLive, but Lane said no COVID-19 mandates are planned at this time.

“We are a community that truly believes people are able to take action for themselves,” Lane said. “… At the end of the day, we’ve spent 18 months in the throes of COVID. People do know how to take their own steps to ensure their own safety.”

Even liberal Multnomah County has not implemented an indoor mask requirement, although it was the first in the state to once again recommend masking last week. Local cases have close to tripled in the past two weeks but rates remain far below most of the state.

County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who also is an emergency room doctor, said she supports a county and statewide indoor mask requirement and mandatory vaccinations for all K-12 school children, health care workers and staff in prisons and jails.

But pushing through extensive measures has been challenging at the county level, and she thinks requirements should come from the state because an overwhelmed hospital system will be a statewide problem.

“This shouldn’t be controversial,” Meieran said. “This isn’t a popularity contest. This is literally about saving lives.”

The lack of action in Oregon is befuddling to some health professionals, who believe the governor needs to step in immediately — if counties won’t — to prevent disease, death or long-lasting debilitating symptoms that might stick with some survivors for the rest of their lives.

“She is absent, she is AWOL,” said Linn Goldberg, a professor emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University who also is a physician. “This is her responsibility. This is a state issue.”