DALLAS — While the Polk County Commissioners understand much of the reasoning that went into Gov. Kate Brown’s order for a two-week pause amidst growing COVID-19 cases, they wish she had consulted them and others in small counties before making her decision.
Craig Pope participated in a joint call with other neighboring commissioners Nov. 17, seeking clarification on Brown’s declaration closing down businesses again to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
“So many entities are upset and frustrated (the state) decided they better listen to us,” Pope said after the Polk County Commissioner’s weekly meeting Nov. 18, “I’m working with Marion and Linn county commissioners trying to take the metrics that are still in raw form and trying to help them revamp what those metrics might look like so that we can do the best we can to keep businesses open.”
Pope said Brown was open to his suggestions, wanting such input to help her teach people and to help them understand the spread of the disease is happening in social gatherings.
“It’s a human behavior challenge. I support that. But punishing small businesses that have no data, we’ve all said it to her and said it to her team,” Pope added. “If you don’t have data that demonstrates that the disease is spreading through these venues, then why are we closing them? Put restrictions on them, but do it with some sense of science.”
For example, Pope said rather than a blanket limit of 25 people per restaurant, consider restricting restaurants by the percentage of their licensed capacity.
Pope said the data for Polk County shows that 26% of the cases over the last two weeks are from social gatherings, according to contact tracing.
“So people are saying they went to a social gathering event and they got sick. The balance of that is showing in certain types of businesses and long-term care facilities are the highest for Polk County, just like it is for Marion County,” Pope said. “There is data we can track and there are ways we can target behavioral challenges in certain categories. But gyms, fitness centers and pools, they’re not in there.”
Brown’s closure order limits restaurants to takeout only and closes gyms, pools, and fitness centers.
In her COVID-19 update to the commissioners Nov. 17, Public Health Manager Jacqui Umstead said coronavirus outbreaks in Polk County were taking place primarily in care providing facilities. She said Windsong Long Term Health Facility had seven, Capital Manor two, Heron Point seven and Marquis Spa Corporation, a business, had 11 confirmed cases.
Commissioner Mike Ainsworth was at his first meeting since returning from quarantine after he and three others were exposed to a county staff member diagnosed with COVID-19. Ainsworth said he had ample time to have several questions about the coronavirus percolate in his head while in isolation.
Chief among his concerns was with contact tracers inability to contact him directly. Although he was asymtomatic and never had to test for COVID-19, Ainsworth said when he tried to return the contract tracers’ call, their voicemail was full.
“I was quarantined. But my wife didn’t have to be,” he said after the meeting. “What’s to say I would have gotten it a week later and my wife could have spread it around? That’s why I brought it up, because I wanted other people to hear firsthand what I went through. Because I think a lot of people want to know the process is and how you get contaminated. We were never tested and were allowed to come back in without a test, as long as we didn’t exhibit any symptoms.”
Umstead said she appreciated Ainsworth’s input and promised changes in the contact system. She added his experience was likely due to the dozen or so overworked contract tracers contracted out from Western Oregon University interns who were actively tracking nearly 250 people at the time.
“The county has three or four case investigators working on gathering information on positive cases in the county. They are now working seven days a week on the task,” Umstead said. “We’re stretched really thin right now by the sheer volume of cases.”
According to Polk County’s COVID-19 tracer page (www.co.polk.or.us/ph/covid-19-polk-county), as of Nov. 23 there were 1,097 positive COVID-19 cases, four hospitalizations and 16 deaths.
With numbers on the rise from record daily counts, Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst said targeting restaurants with another shutdown was unfair when they’ve been the ones going out of their way to abide by new health standards.
“You look at what investment the Washington Street Steakhouse did in the first shutdown,” Mordhorts explained. ”They remodeled that whole place, put in Plexiglass, separators, at the bar and the tables. They followed the rules and guidelines with face masks all the way through. Yet they cannot serve another meal there? That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That’s a huge investment to meet the needs of the guidelines she gave us and they’ve been doing it and they’ve had no outbreaks.”
Pope and his colleagues thought his meeting with the governor was productive. However, they realize they’re not going to be able to change the course of the pause now that it’s in place.
“We’re not going to change the pause. The pause is set,” Pope said. “What I’m hoping to do is be able to develop some criteria that gets us out of the pause or starts moving us forward in a way that’s measurable, that makes sense, as much as possible for the people and the business owners. Because what they’re using now is tougher than the first shutdown. They don’t have any real sensibility to them.”