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Capital Chatter: State braces for impact

Economist's passing comment about COID-19s impact on state could become a reality.

Oregon's reaction to the coronavirus pandemic got off to a rocky start.

The economic shockwaves are rippling worldwide. But the global impact was still unknown on Feb. 12 when State Economist Mark McMullen told legislators in passing that the coronavirus could become the catalyst for a recession.

"Recessions are really a psychological phenomenon at heart. It's really this coordinated pessimism when everyone pulls back at once because of fears or uncertainty in terms of the outcome. And a lot of times, what's needed is a shock or coordinated event to create this pessimism all at once," McMullen said while delivering the state's quarterly economic and revenue forecasts.

Sixteen days later, it was Oregon health officials' turn.

On Feb. 28, Gov. Kate Brown convened her state Coronavirus Response Team.

In doing so, she issued a statement saying: "Let me be clear, as of today there are zero confirmed cases of coronavirus in Oregon, and the risk to Oregonians of contracting the coronavirus remains low.

"However, in an escalating global health crisis, we must make sure we are as ready and informed as we can be. The purpose of the Coronavirus Response Team is to ensure we are taking every precaution necessary, in coordination with local health authorities, hospitals, community health partners and school districts, to make sure that Oregon is fully prepared to respond to any outbreaks of the coronavirus and that Oregonians know how they can keep their families safe."

Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen continued that theme in the afternoon as he testified before the Oregon House Health Care Committee: "The disease is not in Oregon today, and today that means the risk to Oregonians is low. Certainly, that could change quickly."

Allen wanted legislators and the public to understand that health officials had experience managing these situations and knew what to do.

Within hours, Brown and Allen were holding a press conference to announce Oregon's first case.

Nine days later, on March 8, Brown declared a state of emergency. Oregon had 14 cases of what is now called COVID-19.

This week began with legislators on the Emergency Board asking whether the $5 million that Brown and OHA had requested in emergency funding for the coronavirus response was enough.

At the Monday meeting, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, noted that the number of Oregon cases had doubled since the funding request was put together three days earlier.

"I'm nervous that this may or may not be enough money," he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said she'd had extensive conversations with OHA during the weekend, and health officials were confident that the $5 million in state money, along with the authorization to spend additional federal money, would be adequate at the moment.

"I think we have a lot of flexibility with this funding and other funding," Steiner Hayward said, adding that OHA is not shy about letting legislators know when they need more money.

Steiner Hayward, Findley and others praised OHA for its daily teleconferences and other updates that kept legislators informed about the coronavirus.

"The risk is actually pretty low unless you were within three feet of that person when they were sneezing or coughing, or you were actively contacting surfaces shortly afterward," said Steiner Hayward, a physician at Oregon Health & Science University.

"At the risk of sounding monotonous about this subject, wash your hands frequently. Sing 'Happy Birthday' twice while you're doing it. Use hand sanitizer if you can't wash your hands. And don't touch your face.

"Those are the best things you can to do to protect yourself. Knowing who's been infected doesn't make a lot of difference in your own ability to protect yourself, so please respect people's privacy on this."

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, suggested that OHSU should be beefed up in the future to better prepare for pandemics.

"Undoubtedly, there will be this in the future," she said. "I would just hope we look for long-term infrastructure and not just immediate response."

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, had the last word, telling Findley, "We don't know. We don't know."

Courtney said he asked Brown several weeks ago whether the Legislature could do anything to assist in handling the coronavirus. "She said, 'No, I think we're all right.' And then as we moved on, I kept asking, 'Do we need anything?' She said, I think we're all right."

State and local health agencies are working hard, but the financial costs remain uncertain. "This thing is very dynamic, and I have to say we may be back again for more money," Courtney said.

"Anybody who says, 'This is it, this is it," is mistaken. We don't know all that is going to happen yet."

The Emergency Board unanimously approved the funding request. Afterward, I asked Courtney whether he was satisfied with Oregon's response.

At age 76, Courtney is considered part of the vulnerable population. He also is recovering from a hip injury that included a severe infection. He recounted visiting one of his OHSU doctors last week and asking about the coronavirus situation: "All he would say is, 'You need to take this very serious. I don't know where it's going to go.'"

Courtney went on to tell me, "I think anyone who says today that we're doing a good job getting the word out, that we're taking very bold steps, that we've got this expert — they shouldn't be saying stuff like that because I think this is something none of us has ever seen, ever experienced before."

Courtney reiterated that much is unknown. And politics gets involved.

"This thing is enough of a monster that the best thing to say is, 'It's a monster. We're doing everything we can. We're working each day. But I cannot assure you that we know exactly what we're doing.'"

Courtney added that he couldn't even convince his relatives not to depart on a cruise, despite government warnings against doing so. (Princess Cruises and Viking Cruises have now announced they are suspending cruises.)

"I don't want to be an alarmist. But I'm very scared."

Late Wednesday, Brown announced she was using her executive authority to ban all public or private gatherings of more than 250 people for the next four weeks, a step also taken by Washington state in three counties, and was restricting all non-essential school activities, including competitions.

"We find ourselves in an unprecedented public health crisis, a rapidly-evolving global pandemic," Brown said at a follow-up press conference Thursday morning. "Most of us have never experienced anything like this.

"What is clear today is that we must take immediate action to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in our communities.

"Our strategy now in Oregon is shifting away from one of containing isolated cases of COVID-19. Now we are focused on preventing the worst impacts of a mass outbreak from coming to pass."

The NCAA announced it was canceling March Madness. Disneyland said it shutting down to comply with California Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for avoiding large gatherings of people. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was ordering the closing of schools in the three counties encompassing the Seattle area.

It appears that Oregon's state economist read the crystal ball accurately: Coronavirus could be the catalyst for widespread economic hardships, especially for people whose jobs are tied to travel, tourism and public events.

SEIU Local 503, which represents many state workers and other public employees, issued a statement on Thursday saying, "Employers, government and policy makers have a responsibility to protect their employees from financial hardship. If they don't, we're asking people to weigh their personal financial security against public health — a decision that only a bad system would ask people to make."

The Oregon Education Association had its own announcement, including, "Educators who are not able to report to schools during the COVID-19 epidemic, either due to self-quarantine or because of district-mandated school closures, should be placed on paid administrative leave and kept financially whole."

Throughout Oregon, politicians and agencies were canceling public meetings or converting them to online events.

Late in the day, Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, announced the creation of the Special Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response. The committee of seven Democrats and five Republicans "will do most of its work virtually to protect public health."

As of Thursday, Oregon had 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Brown said the state should be prepared for thousands more.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.