By editorial board • 

State, county slow to move on fast-spreading pandemic

The tide of mounting COVID-19 concern has finally swept into Oregon — and not a moment too soon, as the growing roster of new cases includes two at a Lebanon veterans home.

Following the lead of the NCAA, NBA, neighboring Washington, much of higher education and just about everyone else — including heretofore coronavirus skeptic Donald Trump — Oregon has taken its first concrete action to limit the spread. With a proclamation from Gov. Kate Brown, it has banned gatherings of 250 or more, effective immediately, for four weeks.

That announcement spares us from an influx of thousands of visitors for the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic — something local health authorities could and should have done on their own. It’s a case of worthy event, worthy cause, wrong timing.

The county has been waiting for the state. The state now appears to have accepted the magnitude and urgency of the task at hand.

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250, it sent a shock wave through the system. And larger aftershocks soon followed, including the NBA’s suspension of the remainder of its season and the NCAA’s decree that March Madness would play out to empty seats (as of press time; we wouldn’t be surprised if the popular tournament was canceled by the time you are reading this).

If that weren’t enough, President Trump moved from tweet to nationally televised address. He announced the first serious suppression efforts on a national scale, including limitations on international travel.

Meanwhile, Harvard is sending its students home, Stanford has suspended its overseas campus program and both have been joined by Oregon and Oregon State in switching to online education.

Yamhill County should not be content to remain but a cog in a slow-moving state wheel. It should be paying attention to the bolder actions by others and following suit on its own initiative as circumstances warrant. If there was ever the time to err on the side of caution, this is it.

Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines told reporters Monday those with mild symptoms “do not need to seek care and do not need to be tested.” At the same briefing, State Health Officer Dean Sidelinger said only 14 cases had been reported in Oregon.

But he acknowledged presciently, “This disease is much more widespread in our community, as many of these cases were identified as potential community transmission, meaning we can’t trace it back to an individual or to a situation where they were put at risk.”

The impact in Oregon is spreading both numerically and geographically on a daily basis. And confirmed cases in a veterans home is an ominous development.

Locally, Health and Human Services Director Lindsey Manfrin proclaimed, “To date, we have not had any cases in Yamhill County.” But so few Oregonians have been tested, that statement is disingenuous at best.

Last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, implored health officials around the world to act more decisively. “‘This is not a drill,” he said. “This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops.”

Underscoring the concern, WHO upgraded the severity rating from global epidemic to full-fledged pandemic.

But Sidelinger stopped at urging Oregonians to wash their hands frequently, clean surfaces often and stay home when sick. That advice, while excellent, falls far short of actions the state should already have been taking.

Ominously, National Nurses United warned March 5 that American hospitals were woefully unprepared. As of March 3, the union said, a national survey showed “high percentages of hospitals do not have plans, isolation procedures and policies in place for COVID-19,” and there is a widespread lack of communication and training.

We’ve had a hard time just determining the state of preparedness at our local hospitals, Providence Newberg and Willamette Valley. The flow of information has been slow, grudging and incomplete. Perhaps they just didn’t have answers to questions being asked, and didn’t want to admit that publicly.

China tried to deny and minimize the virus until it became epidemic, requiring draconian measures. Italy was also slow to act. Now, the entire country is under quarantine; all shops other than supermarkets and pharmacies are closed. Italian hospitals are overwhelmed with severe cases, diverting care from the regular run of patients. Reports indicate doctors there are literally having to pick and choose who lives and who dies. 

In contrast, Hong Kong and Singapore moved swiftly. So did Iceland, which has become a model for decisive and effective action.

The lesson is this: If you let mild cases spread unchecked, you will soon be overwhelmed with severe ones. The reason is simple math.

Though 80 percent of cases are mild, that means 20 percent are not. If just 2 percent of Oregonians contracted COVID-19, and just 20 percent of those suffered severe forms, we would need 16,800 quarantined, acute-care hospital beds with ventilation capability. But even in good times, hospitals operate close to capacity.

We aren’t prepared for that, but it would seem officials aren’t prepared to admit it. Slowing the spread would help keep hospital needs manageable, but we’re already playing catchup.

Bold actions to slow the spread of coronaviruses will have consequences. But not doing so is likely to lead to worse outcomes.

Schools are natural breeding grounds. But if schools were closed, health officials note, that would set off a chain reaction of significant consequences for all concerned.

Similar objections apply to nearly all measures we could take. But we aren’t going to avoid the pain by failing to take action; we are simply going to postpone it until it looms much larger.

Perhaps the most pressing immediate issue, both nationally and locally, is lack of test kits. The federal roll-out has proven painfully slow. We need a torrent, but are getting a trickle.

The blame lies squarely with the federal administration. The infrastructure of disease control, like so much else in Washington, D.C., has been gutted. Now we are paying the price.

In seems the state has, so far, been testing about 40 people per day. In a total population of 4.2 million, that figure is ridiculously low.

To date, there is no vaccine for the uninfected or treatment for the infected, other than ventilators to address respiratory distress and last-resort measures to counteract organ failure.

Yes, it’s necessary to keep a level head and follow good hygiene practices. Yes, keeping several weeks worth of food, medication, pet food and other necessities on hand is a good idea. Yes, it’s common sense to stay home when you’re sick.

But that’s not enough. Painful, sterner measures must be taken, starting at the top.

Comments

DennyP

Hear! Hear! I would add we need this kind of forthright stance from local media as well, maybe especially in areas more removed from population centers, to help identify important decision makers and assist the public in holding them accountable. Thank you NR for stepping up.

RobsNewsRegister

Jeb-

Has there been any recommendation regarding using the 5 cent paper bags rather than reusable ones that could potentially transmit the virus from store to store for the time being? Thx.

RobsNewsRegister

Or maybe a reminder to routinely wash reusable bags? Please see story link below. Of course - E-Coli is a bacteria, not a virus, so that's why someone from the State Health Department might be in the best position to answer the question.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/plastic-bag-ban_n_2641430

RobsNewsRegister

Jeb & NR Staff,

Maine suspended implementation of their plastic bag ban for one year due to the coronavirus. Is there any news from Oregon regarding recommendations for using single use paper instead of our reusable bags for now?

https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickgleason/2020/03/17/pandemic-prompts-call-to-suspend-or-repeal-bag-bans--taxes/#17597c4d464d

https://www.plasticsnews.com/news/maine-halts-plastic-bag-ban-part-plan-mitigate-coronavirus-spread