Frustrating. Not good. Irritating.
There's a lot of words I could use to describe my feeling about Marion and Polk being the only counties in Oregon whose applications to start reopening were rejected by Governor Brown and the Oregon Health Authority.
Of Oregon's 36 counties, 31 were given the OK to reopen. Three haven't applied yet (Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington). And two, Marion and Polk, have the dubious distinction of not passing the re-opening criteria, apparently mostly because of continued high numbers of new COVID-19 cases.
On the sort-of bright side, today's OHA Coronavirus Update said, "The applications for Marion and Polk counties were not approved, and those counties will be monitored for seven days to see if conditions in those counties have improved." But the update also showed that, once again, Marion County had the highest number of new cases in Oregon.
Oregon Health Authority reported 67 new confirmed cases and no new presumptive cases of COVID-19 as of 8 a.m. today, bringing the state total to 3,479. The new confirmed cases reported today are in the following counties: Deschutes (2), Linn (2), Malheur (1), Marion (33), Multnomah (19), Polk (1), Umatilla (2), Washington (2), Yamhill (5).
Here's a map that tells the reopening tale, courtesy of the Oregon Health Authority.
So how is it that Marion County, along with our neighbor Polk County, is going to continue being shutdown tomorrow, while all of the uncolored counties in the map have been approved for a Phase 1 reopening? Which, according to a State of Oregon summary, consists of:
First reopening stage, allowed in specific counties that qualify. Includes limited reopening of restaurants and bars, personal services, gyms, and malls. Gatherings of up to 25 people allowed for recreational, social, cultural, civic or faith events – with physical distancing requirements.
When I first heard today that Marion County's reopen application had been turned down, my snap reaction was to blame the three Republican county commissioners.
After all, one of them, Sam Brentano, is a notorious global warming denier. So it was easy for me to envision he and the other two commissioners ignoring public health scientists, being big on Trump-style "let's get the economy open again and not worry much about whether this causes more deaths and disease."
There could be some truth to this. The Marion County Health Department has been notably silent on our local coronavirus crisis. I'm a news junkie and haven't seen any meaningful public utterances about the unusually high number of COVID-19 cases here.
In fact, I've read news stories where staff from the Health Department declined to comment on the high rate of infections in Marion County. That got me to thinking that department employees were being stifled by the County Commissioners in the same way Trump has been preventing federal scientists from releasing coronavirus guidelines and other information.
But an excellent Salem Reporter story by Rachel Alexander, Saphara Harrell and Jake Thomas caught my eye a little while ago. The timing was great to publish today's "WATCHDOG: In Marion County, high concentrations of coronavirus blamed on inequality of care."
Along with other news outlets, Salem Reporter is making coronavirus-related stories free to everybody. So you should be able to read the link above without a subscription -- which i highly recommend that you do, as it is by far the best analysis I've seen of the situation in Marion County.
It's a detailed, nuanced, well-researched story.
Notwithstanding the headline citing inequality of care as the culprit in Marion County, the story shows that there's plenty of blame to go around. Read it to get the full picture.
Here's my summary of the blamees, with excerpts from the Salem Reporter piece -- which focuses on the heavily Latinx Woodburn area that has by far the most coronavirus cases in Marion County.
Marion County Health Department
Days passed before the Marion County Health Department approached the groups to ask their help to slow the rapidly escalating number of infected individuals."
"But an investigation by Salem Reporter found that state and Marion County health officials were slow to get timely, accurate information about COVID-19 to agricultural workers and non-English speaking residents in the north county.
Constrained by limited testing capacity, limited staffing and sometimes days-long delays in getting results back, health officials reacted as new cases were reported, but did little to proactively ensure some of the county’s most vulnerable residents were armed with information to protect themselves and their families.
Community leaders and state health officials said Marion County’s outbreak is exposing longstanding inequities for Latinos and non-English speaking residents who are more likely employed in agriculture, manufacturing and other fields where work has continued despite the pandemic.
The leaders described as slow or inadequate the outreach early on that could have helped people still working in essential jobs better protect themselves and their families.
“The gaps that are already in our community, the gaps that have already been there between our Latinx community and our county, they’ve been magnified in a really big way,” said Lopez, the PCUN director.
Bad business practices
Employers in grocery stores, agriculture, manufacturing and construction weren’t required to follow all of the state’s guidelines about social distancing at work, though they still had an obligation to protect employees from COVID-19 under general workplace safety rules, according to Oregon OSHA spokesman Aaron Colvin.
Staying far apart from other workers is possible in some field jobs, but Lopez said PCUN received reports from workers that they were working “shoulder to shoulder” in farms and food processing plants and didn’t have hand washing stations or sanitizing supplies. PCUN encouraged people to file complaints with state agencies, she said.
Workers have filed 29 complaints with Oregon OSHA alleging Woodburn businesses failed to follow social distancing guidelines or provide protective equipment. Six relate to grocery stores and three to nursery and meat packing businesses. Most are still being investigated.
Close contact at work wasn’t the only concern. Workers often shared van rides to jobs, providing another way for the virus to spread. Many live in large households, making it easier for the virus to spread to a larger group if a working adult unwittingly brings home the disease.
Large households have been a common factor for people seeking COVID-19 testing at Woodburn’s Salud Medical Center.
“Family is the center. You may be interdependent on other portions of your family. Maybe your cousin is your babysitter. Maybe your grandparents live with you or your parents,” said Lori Kelley, director of quality for Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic, which operates Salud.
Health care access
Access to health care also plays a role, according to Latino health providers and community leaders. State data shows that Latinos are less likely to have health insurance, meaning it’s more difficult to get testing.
That means those testing positive in official counts likely reflect a small portion of the true number with COVID-19. Kelley said the percentage of patients testing positive at Salud has been higher than at Yakima Valley’s other Marion County clinics, suggesting those coming in are more sick.
Lack of testing
Lopez said she’s heard reports of Latinos with COVID-19 symptoms turned away from testing sites in the county, sometimes because they didn’t have insurance.
Without widespread testing, it’s more likely for people with no or very mild symptoms to spread the virus, especially if they’re still going to work. Public health workers are also challenged to identify where the virus is spreading when they can’t track all those who are infected, something that can revealed by extensive testing.
Lopez said government health authorities should have worked with rural radio stations, Spanish language media or other similar outlets. Even when social distancing guidelines did get out, she said they often failed to address the realities of daily life for people who carpool to work or live in large households with a single bathroom.
“What I mostly heard was confusion from our Latinx community, especially our elders, saying ‘Hey, am I going to get arrested if I go out to work?’” Lopez said.
In case you're wondering why the Salem Reporter story focused so much on the Woodburn area, that's the biggest "hot spot" in Marion County. Here's a chart from the story.