POLK COUNTY — Gov. Kate Brown announced Feb. 9 an update to the state’s risk-level tiers for each county as the case counts of COVID-19 continued to trend downward across the state. While the governor was pleased with the direction the state is moving, Craig Pope, board chair for the Polk County Commissioners, didn’t mince words over his reaction when Polk County was not among the 12 adjusted downward.
“I was stunned. Stunned. I don’t understand it,” Pope said Feb. 10. “And a lot of the folks I’ve been on meetings with in the last 24 hours, including this one I just got off with the governor herself, are stunned.”
While Polk and Marion counties remain in the extreme risk category, others including Deschutes, Clatsop, Columbia, Lincoln and Linn all moved from extreme risk to high risk. Meanwhile, moving down two tiers were Morrow County from extreme to moderate, Baker County from high to lower risk, and Grant County from moderate to lower risk.
However, it was Portland’s largest counties that drew the most raised eyebrows, as Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties were moved from extreme to high-risk tiers. Pope said he and his fellow commissioners didn’t understand the move.
“They can’t understand how the metro counties, Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah, who have been saying they may not meet a threshold to get out of extreme for many months to come suddenly in a two-week period drop down below the number,” Pope said.
County risk levels under the state’s public health framework aim to reduce transmission to prevent spread of COVID-19. The framework uses four different risk levels — extreme, high, moderate and lower risk — and assigns health and safety measures for each level.
Pope questions how Polk County can remain outside the threshold, at 288 cases per 100,000 population, when the larger metro counties were adjusted downward. He also finds it interesting that Polk County, a quarter the size of Marion County, can have the exact same case rate.
“I’m not trying to wear a tin foil hat. There is likely a reason for it. But we never hear it. No one actually explains to us ‘here is what we experienced, here’s what we know,’” Pope said. “We don’t get any dialogue from Oregon Health Authority, ‘So you’re not wearing a tin foil hat, here’s what’s happening from our perspective.’”
He added when citizens are in a vacuum of information, that can lead to a lack in trust of leaders and in government overall.
“That frustrates me, because I want to be able to tell people the truth, to tell them what we know, that makes sense,” he said.
An addition, there is frustration over how smaller counties don’t have more wiggle room with their case counts than their larger counterparts.
A case in point, Pope recounted a question from a Crook County Judge, who is also a board of commissioners chair, had during the county commissioners’ meeting with the governor.
“He was saying, ‘We missed the metric to move from extreme to high by one case. One case governor. Why?” Pope recalled.
Essentially, the governor said her hands were tied.
“Well, I’m sorry, I know this is really hard, but we can’t be fudging the numbers because you’re one case long,” Pope said was the governor’s response.
Pope said the problem is the commissioners as the local public health authorities know what is best for their communities versus an overall policy at the state level. He, like his colleagues across the state, are taking the threat of coronavirus seriously.
“You hear everyone in the community asking questions. We are very engaged in it, willing to give direction, every day. That’s how it is in every county. We don’t want to be the cause of making decisions putting more people at risk than they should be,” he said. “But there is a balance. They say we’re all in this together. But there needs to be a balance in the decision making. The economic environment needs the stability to survive with the health care needs.”
The new risk levels are good through Feb. 25. New risk levels will be announced Feb. 23 and will go into effect Feb. 26.