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Capital Chatter: A COVID-19 roundup

Oregon's state and congressional officials deal with the impacts of COVID-19, and struggle with technology.

For Sen. Ron Wyden, coronavirus precautions in the nation's capital are similar to how life is unfolding across Oregon.

The other day, Wyden briefed his fellow Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee's coronavirus package. At the meeting, senators were seated seven or eight feet apart to emphasize social distancing.

"Everyone told me, 'Ron, don't touch anything. Don't touch the podium, don't touch the mic, don't touch anything,'" Wyden said. "So I think it's fair to say everybody in the Senate is dealing with everything Oregonians are dealing with."

Wyden told his wife that his hands felt like sandpaper from washing them so often.

As the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, Wyden was instrumental in the Senate's $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which ultimately passed unanimously and is in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the first time in the nearly 90-year history of unemployment insurance, the legislation includes coverage for self-employed individuals, independent contractors, freelancers and other gig workers.

This is an issue also raised this week by the Oregon Legislature's Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response. The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program is temporary, but Wyden told me it could lead Congress to eventually revise regular unemployment insurance and include gig workers.

The legislation also includes money to expand voting by mail, such as through absentee ballots, so voters in every state could use mailing balloting this year if they desired.

Oregon was the pioneer. Wyden reminded me that most Democrats, other than Secretary of State Phil Keisling and him, originally opposed mail balloting. Then in February 1996, Congressman Wyden beat state Senate President Gordon Smith, a Republican from Pendleton, in a special election to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by Bob Packwood's resignation

The election was conducted solely by mail – the first time for a U.S. congressional election. And because Wyden won, the sides switched. Democrats fell in love with vote-by-mail and Republicans despised it. Now it's ingrained in Oregon's political culture.

This week I looked back at the news coverage of that election. Oregonians were focused on the fact that Wyden was the first Democrat they had elected to the U.S. Senate in 34 years. Nationally, however, the powers-that-be were stunned at Oregon's success with mail voting.

What happened near the end of that nasty election campaign also was meaningful. Wyden pulled his negative ads.

That fall, Smith won the election to succeed Mark Hatfield in the Senate. Smith and Wyden had to work together.

The Portland liberal Wyden and the Pendleton conservative Smith did more than put aside their past political and personal acrimony. They became good friends, and allies on behalf of Oregon, even though their votes on national issues often canceled each other's.

That should be a history lesson for today's Oregon politicians, although it appears not all are ready to forgive and forget the enmity of the 2020 and 2019 legislative sessions.

Speaking of which: The Legislature's coronavirus committee conducted four days of collegial, bipartisan discussions on dozens of proposals to help Oregon businesses, individuals and the health care system.

But the committee did not vote. It had no power to act, only to make recommendations. The decisions on what to include in a special legislative session will be made by legislative leaders working with Gov. Kate Brown.

Here's the $250 million question: Was the committee's work meaningful and will it shape that special session? Or was the committee a façade, a public relations tool to calm the public and/or create the impression that all ideas were being carefully vetted in a nonpartisan manner?

As for $250 million, that is how much Brown said she wanted in special coronavirus funding. That is what the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Care Systems requested for a "Hospital COVID-19 Emergency Fund." The association also proposed a $200 million "Hospital Stabilization Fund."

One of the ironies of Oregon's pandemic response is that some hospitals, clinics and outpatient facilities are laying off health-care workers at the same time those workers supposedly are in short supply.

Those facilities have been ordered to stop elective surgeries and some other procedures. Meanwhile, fewer people are going to a doctor or to the emergency room. That lost revenue has forced staff reductions, as is happening throughout the economy.

Helping out: Salem Health, which runs two hospitals and several clinics, asked the public to sew nearly 10,000 protective masks from surgical paper for nurses and other care providers. Kits with the sewing materials and instructions were being handed out Thursday afternoon.

So many people responded that traffic was snarled, but all the kits were dispensed within an hour.

The bad news is that Salem Health temporarily has stopped testing for COVID-19 and influenza in its clinics and emergency room because it was running out of testing supplies. While seeking more collection kits and other supplies, officials were reserving the ones on hand for hospitalized patients.

The politics of technology: Communication has been a muddle for Oregon officials. It's almost as if they had never prepared for these situations, let alone always testing and practicing with the equipment and technology before an event. One wonders whether they are bringing in skilled crisis management consultants from outside government.

I did hear from one county board of commissioners that practiced using video conferencing before conducting a public meeting that way. Good for them.

A recent teleconference with top legislators was so difficult to understand that a frustrated reporter suggested they appoint a task force on teleconferences – and follow its recommendations. Video conferencing confounded some legislators on the coronavirus committee. Overloaded teleconference lines and unworkable systems created problems for the Governor's Office and the Oregon Health Authority, and an OHA webinar on Thursday was plagued with fits and starts.

Oregon's difficulties are not unique. Brown said it took her 10 minutes to get through on a conference call with the National Governors Association.

Quote of the week: In summarizing where much of the state budget is spent, Brown said, "We educate, we medicate and we incarcerate."

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.