Linn and Benton counties have petitioned Gov. Kate Brown asking that businesses be allowed to reopen as early as May 15, but public health officials are cautioning that a successful reopening will depend largely on individuals continuing to act responsibly.
The Linn County Board of Commissioners sent a revised petition to the governor Friday afternoon, and the Benton County board submitted its petition on Monday. They are among 32 of Oregon's 36 counties that are seeking reopening approval.
Commissioners in both Linn and Benton counties say they have met all of the governor's criteria for a phased-in opening, including:
• A declining prevalence of COVID-19. Linn County’s maximum hospitalization number at one time was three patients, and Benton County officials say the number there is in the same range, although precise figures were not available Tuesday.
• A minimum testing regimen of at least 30 people per 10,000 population per week. Both counties say they are exceeding that requirement.
• A robust contact tracing system. Linn County has trained 30 tracers. Benton has trained 16 so far and will have 22 available by the middle of next week. Both counties exceed the minimum of 15 per 100,000 residents.
• Have adequate isolation facilities. Contracts with local motels are in place in both counties.
• Meet finalized business sector guidelines regarding personal health and safety measures in local businesses. Both counties say they have educational resources and information systems in place.
• Demonstrate sufficient health care capacity. Samaritan Health Services, the hospital operator for both counties, has resumed performing non-emergency and elective surgeries and says it has adequate surge capacity in the event of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
• Have sufficient PPE supplies. Linn County has agreed to backfill local chambers of commerce in the purchase of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment for employees when businesses reopen. In Benton County, public safety agencies and the the local hospital have at least a 30-day supply, and the county's emergency operations center is allocating PPE based on Oregon Health Authority guidelines.
But local health officials emphasize that when businesses open and stay-in-place restrictions are eased, it is important that individuals continue to emphasize personal safety protocols such as wearing face masks, washing their hands frequently and not gathering in large groups.
“No one wants to open up more than Linn County,” Public Health Director Todd Noble said. “But you can’t have it both ways. We can’t open up and everyone quit practicing safe social distancing protocols.”
Noble said it will be up to Linn County citizens whether reopening will be successful or not.
Noble said he sees many people in stores — customers and employees — without face masks.
Charlie Fautin, interim co-director of the Benton County Health Department, said he sees people making an effort to wear masks and maintain safe distances.
"People are pretty good about this," he said. "I go into grocery stores, and everybody's doing that dance to stay 6 feet away from me."
Noble said Linn County has taken an aggressive approach to COVID-19 since March, when the first cases were diagnosed at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans' Home in Lebanon.
“We believe we meet or exceed of the governor’s guidelines,” Noble said.
Reopening local businesses “does not mean we are out of the water yet,” said Neva Anderson, Linn County’s emergency preparedness coordinator.
Anderson said the county has hired temporary staff to conduct contact tracing, along with volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps — the same group of health professionals who have played a major role staffing the county’s COVID-19 hotline.
This week, the county will begin intensive testing at all long-term care facilities.
“We are also going to begin monthly testing of all long-term care clinical staff, about 1,100,” Anderson said. “It’s a huge project.”
Fautin said Benton County has been training contact tracers as well.
"We have 16 tracers," he said. "By the middle of next week we'll have 22 fully trained."
With a population of about 92,000, that number is well above the minimum of 14 contact tracers needed to meet state standards.
All three local officials said as their counties get closer to opening, it’s vital that residents continue to follow safety protocols:
• Wear a mask when you are in public, at work, at the grocery store, etc.
• Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds many times per day.
• Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet.
• If you have a fever, cough or just feel poorly, stay home.
“If we open up and people don’t follow guidelines, we could see our number of COVID-19 cases increase and we would have to shut down. That would not be good,” Anderson said. “It’s up to us to protect each other.”
Noble echoed her sentiments.
“I was in Portland recently and nearly everyone I saw was wearing a mask,” Noble said. “I see so many people locally who are not wearing them. We should be doing everything we can to stay safe. We can’t be foolish about this. We have to take responsibility for ourselves and to help ensure the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Fautin had similar comments.
"Everyone is really relying on a communitarian feeling that we're all in this together and we need to protect one another," he said. "There's a lot of voluntary compliance that will still be required."
As of Tuesday, there have been eight deaths associated with COVID-19 in Linn County, seven of which were residents at the Edward C. Allworth Veterans' Home in Lebanon. Benton County has had five deaths from the disease, including three former residents of the Corvallis Manor nursing home.
There have been 130 deaths statewide and more than 80,000 nationwide.
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