New Worry

Governor Kate Brown has said that if the cases continue to sharply increase, she may be forced to shut down the state’s economy again.

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Over the July 4 holiday weekend, Columbia County saw 10 additional cases of confirmed and presumptive COVID-19 cases. Statewide, through the holiday, the number of cases surged over 10,000.

Columbia County Public Health reported 43 confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 cases as of Monday, July 6 and there were still no deaths in Columbia County associated with the pandemic.

Statewide, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reports the state’s death toll from COVID-19 remained at 215 as of July 6.

Shutdown possible

Governor Kate Brown has said that if the cases continue to sharply increase, she may be forced to shut down the state’s economy again. The threat of businesses closing again is unsettling for Columbia County Economic Team executive director Paul Vogel.

"The hundreds of small businesses in each of our communities throughout Columbia County are vital to what we all consider our way of life," Vogel said. "They’re working overtime to keep their businesses, which we all count on being there, alive."

Vogel said each business is adapting and doing their best to recover and re-open after the initial shutdown this past spring.

"That means changing how they do business, changing how they serve customers, and counting on customers to do the minimum, which is face covering," he said. "There are good reasons to do that; the statewide mandate removes all question."

Vogel said Columbia County has been fortunate to avoid suffering the pandemic infection and fatality rates seen elsewhere and business owners know very well how important that is to protect people as well as businesses.

"The initial pandemic shutdown was devastating to them," Vogel said. "The re-opening and recovery are costly and difficult, but they’re making a go of it because they’re resilient. A second complete shutdown would be devastating. There isn’t enough financial help out there to weather another closure and re-start."

Vogel said another economic shutdown can be avoided by each of us doing the small things.

"We can all help control whether that happens, by being respectful of ourselves, each other, and doing what it takes to keep places, not just businesses, open," he said. "It’s awkward at times, yes. It’s unfamiliar, of course. Above all, it’s essential, especially with the exponential rise in infection, especially among younger people.

Vogel said businesses across the county continue to urge everyone to do the absolute minimum: use masks or face coverings, wash their hands a lot, and maintain respectful distances.

"That will help keep people safe and businesses open," Vogel said. "Businesses staying open will avert another business and economic shutdown absolutely none of us can afford."

“As we are watching the surge in cases across the state, I encourage everyone to take public health precautions seriously, wash your hands, and wear a face covering,” St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl said. “It is critical that we continue to support our local businesses in this time. Many of our restaurants, personal service providers, retailers and small businesses have struggled to reopen and we don’t want to backslide now. It’s impossible to put a dollar figure on what tightened regulations might mean, but I do know that many businesses just want to stay afloat through this.” 

Clatskanie City Manager Greg Hinkelman said if the state moves to close down local economies again, in light of the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, it would be an economic disaster for his city.

“Re-closing would be devastating to our service industry businesses, especially our restaurants,” Hinkelman said. “I hope this does not happen.”

Mask mandate

It has been just over 100 days since Brown issued her ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ order.

At the time, there were 14 positive COVID-19 cases in Oregon.

Now that total has surged over 10,000.

On June 30, Brown extended Oregon’s COVID-19 State of Emergency declaration for up to 60 days. On July 1, Brown addressed Oregonians at a press conference.

“Today, Oregon, you have a choice… What happens next is up to you,” Brown said. “Now, we find ourselves at a new crossroads. The choices each of us make will decide whether we reduce the spread of the virus and find a way to keep our businesses open, or whether we let down our defenses and allow the virus to take hold.”

Brown did take a moment to applaud Oregonians for their work to slow the spread of the virus so far. She noted that their modeling shows Oregon has prevented 1,500 hospitalizations and 70,000 infections in that 100 day period. Oregon also has one of the lowest mortality rates from COVID-19 in the United States.

“There is absolutely no question that Oregon has been a leader so far in fighting this pandemic,” Brown said. “In the months of this emergency, Oregon has sured up PPE supplies, hired contact tracers and expanded testing capabilities.”

However, Brown said that an uncontrolled spike that threatens hospital capacity, will force the state to take drastic measures which would include businesses closing again. She pointed out that other states are seeing hospitalizations spike and are closing businesses again, but that is not the goal for Oregon.

To combat this rise in cases, Brown issued a statewide face covering requirement for anyone visiting indoor public spaces. Nearly 20 states have implemented similar rules and Brown said this generally applies to all indoor spaces where the public may go.

“Any time you might be in an indoor area with the general public, you should put on a face covering,” Brown said.

There are some exceptions to the order, such as people with a medical condition that makes it hard to breath and children under the age of 12. However, the state is still recommending face covering use for all children above the age of two.

The biggest question about the governor's new order is enforcement. Brown pointed out that this order is enforceable by law at both the business level and the individual level, which includes a Class C misdemeanor charge. However, citations are not the goal of this order.

“As with all of my orders, I do not want the local police issuing tickets,” Brown said. “Instead, I’m calling upon our businesses to step up and help ensure that the public and their employees are protected.”

According to Brown, state agencies are currently working with businesses on education and information before enforcement. The state is asking everyone to take the requirement seriously and expect businesses to comply with the guidelines. Business owners are not encouraged to call the police for violations, but rather to call OSHA for advice and assistance.

New Statistics

During the media briefing on July 1, Oregon State Health Officer Dean Sidelinger, MD said for five straight weeks Oregon has seen case growth, with case growth up 20 percent in the last two week at an increase of 2,500 cases.

Almost 9,000 Oregonians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 208 people have died as of July 1. Positive tests are increasing, with 4.3 percent of tests coming back positive, it’s the highest rate Oregon has seen since April.

Sidelinger said that the number of sporadic cases (no known source) are increasing, meaning the state suspects the virus is circulating more widely within communities. That state has also seen an increase in transmission within ages under 50, particularly children and teens. Because of this OHA will begin reporting outbreaks in child care facilities.

Hospitalizations are up six percent, with health care systems maintaining capacity. However, as new modeling by OHA shows a likely scenario of 900 cases and 27 hospitalizations per day at the current rate, Sidelinger said this trend could place a large burden on the Oregon health care system.

“We all have to remember the numbers I speak about are people, these are people who are sick and tragically, some of them have died,” Sidelinger said. “These are people with families, these people are our neighbors.”

Face Covering Effectiveness

Questions have been asked about the effectiveness of the governor’s mandates and during the Wednesday press conference, Oregon Health Sciences University chief officer Dr. Renee Edwards spoke about face covering use, physical distancing and hand washing.

“Oregonians should really give themselves all a pat on the back for the outstanding work that we all did back in March and early April… we reduced our underlying transmission rate of COVID-19 by 83 percent,” Edwards said. “What can feel truly frustrating about COVID-19 is that there is no sure medical treatment to prevent it or treat it once a person is infected. Our defense against the coronavirus is a good proactive offense.”

Edwards stressed the importance of washing hands, wearing a face covering and keeping physical distance because it is known that the coronavirus is transmitted by respiratory droplets while in close contact with other individuals.

“It just makes good common sense that simply covering our mouths and noses with a face covering or mask to serve as a barrier for these droplets from getting to others, along with standing a certain distance away from one another would prevent disease spread,” Edwards said.

Edwards cited medical studies that involved thousands of people across several countries, which showed staying six feet away and wearing a face covering leads to large reduction of transmission.

“Wearing a mask reduces disease spread… and distancing reduces disease spread,” Edwards said. “Each alone are valuable, but done together, gives even greater protection. Not one or the other, but both is actually best.”

She also noted that people can be infectious to others for 2-3 days before they develop COVID-19 symptoms. Symptoms, primarily in young people, can be so mild that they aren’t noticeable.

“It might cause some discomfort wearing something on your face, or cause some skin irritation… or for some people with preexisting medical conditions, such as a breathing problem, they could potentially increase this breathing difficulty. I would say that these effects are small relative to the value that we all gain by using them,” Edwards said. “The bottomline is, the more people you interact with, the closer you are to them and the longer you are with them, the greater your risk is of either getting COVID-19 or spreading it to someone.”

Reporter Christine Menges and executive editor Jeremy C. Ruark contributed to this report. Follow daily developments at thechronicleonline.com and read in-depth details in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.

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