Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has wielded extraordinary powers in the state under a COVID-19 emergency declaration. She was responsible for a statewide mask mandate along with requirements for physical distancing in indoor spaces, capacity limits and vaccine verification.
All of that ended recently, and the state essentially reopened. But Oregon is not the same state as it was. About 210,000 Oregonians contracted the virus. Almost 2,800 Oregonians have died from it. Brown spoke with OPB’s Dave Miller on Friday to talk about the last year and a half and the way forward. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dave Miller: What was the hardest decision that you had to make over the last year and a half?
Gov. Kate Brown: I just have to give a shoutout to my fellow Oregonians for doing an extraordinary job throughout this pandemic by following science and data and looking out for one another.
Oregonians made really smart decisions, and as a result, we had one of the lowest case infection rates and one of the lowest mortality rates throughout the pandemic in the entire country. In terms of decision-making, there’s absolutely no question that the most challenging decision was around vaccination strategy. That was honestly the hardest decision I have ever had to make, and there have been some very difficult ones.
Miller: You’re saying vaccination strategy, and I think you mean vaccination prioritization, literally making a list of who can get it when and who can’t get it yet — that that was a hard decision of your life? So what were the kinds of things you were weighing?
Brown: It was a number of things. As you know, I met regularly with my medical advisory panel, a group of Oregon doctors and nurses, folks on the front lines advising me. I certainly had access to the professionals of the Oregon Health Authority. They had stood up a committee to prioritize vulnerable Oregonians. We weighed all of this information in making that particular decision.
Miller: You’re talking about getting input from other people. But this is the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make. Why?
Brown: Because we simply did not have enough vaccines, and I knew that. And I knew it might be weeks or even months before we had enough vaccines to adequately vaccinate Oregonians. That was an incredibly difficult decision to make.
Miller: One of the biggest ways in which you ended up going in a different direction than many other governors was in prioritizing K-12 workers ahead of older Oregonians who didn’t live in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Do you stand by that decision?
Brown: Absolutely. I knew that the impact on our kids across the state was devastating, of not being in school in terms of social and emotional learning and in terms of their education, and I knew that we needed to get our educator workforce vaccinated before we could get our kids back into the classroom. I had friends, close friends, whose kids had attempted suicide. I knew of actual suicides that had happened in communities like Lake Oswego. I knew of kids with eating disorders and anxiety and depression. I knew we had to do everything we could to get our kids back into the classroom.
Miller: The way I read this was that in prioritizing K-12 workers ahead of older Oregonians for vaccines, there was a kind of bet that once teachers were vaccinated, big districts would open up. But that didn’t happen until more months went by, and then you finally ordered schools to let kids come back, even if in limited ways closer to the end of the school year. The end result was that a lot of Oregon students had a lot less in-person instructional time than their counterparts in most other states, including similarly heavily Democratic states. Would you do anything differently if you could go back in time in terms of ordering schools to open up earlier?
Brown: We worked collaboratively with our school districts and with our teachers and our educators. We would not have gotten these hundreds of thousands of students back into school if we hadn’t gotten vaccination protection. There’s absolutely no question about that.
Miller: That’s different than the question of the timeline in retrospect. Do you wish you had ordered schools to open up, say a month earlier?
Brown: I think what was important is that we took a community-based approach and we worked with local school districts to make sure that they had the tools and resources needed to safely reopen. A number of school districts, for example, Salem-Keizer, began the reopening process earlier. And what that was, frankly, was a demonstration and proof that we could do this safely and effectively. I do know that both educators and parents, for example in the Portland area, were gravely concerned about the impacts of their kids going back to school, and there are still frankly a lot of families who are nervous. What we were able to show after we got our educator workforce vaccinated is that we could do this safely and that the risk of transmission of COVID-19 was relatively low.
Miller: Let’s turn to the vaccination effort going forward because new vaccinations have really slowed down. Back in April, an average of 44,000 Oregonians every day was getting a vaccine dose. That average is down about 90% from that time. What do you think that’s going to mean for our state?
Brown: Well, I just have to say, we were able to fully reopen … because so many Oregonians were willing to get vaccinated. We met our mark of seven out of 10 adults being vaccinated on Friday (the previous week), and we are literally 12th in the country for complete vaccinations. That’s pretty extraordinary for a little state like Oregon. We are obviously moving to the next chapter, but we are going to continue our efforts, our robust and community-based efforts of vaccinating Oregonians across the state. In terms of response to the pandemic, we are moving to a more traditional, localized decision-making process where local public health makes decisions based on information from their local community medical experts. It’s been a really incredible partnership with our county public health, with our community-based organizations and with our health care systems. We’re going to continue this effort because we know that the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones and to prevent hospitalizations and death is through a vaccine.
Miller: As you know, there are huge disparities right now within different racial or ethnic groups in Oregon. All these numbers are people 16 and over, in terms of vaccination rates. Among Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian Oregonians, it’s about 81%; for white Oregonians, it’s 61%; for Black, Native American and Latino Oregonians, it’s about 45%, obviously less than half. What specifically are you going to do about that?
Brown: One of the lessons that I learned from the pandemic, and I think was unveiled nationally, was the impact of racism in our communities, our cultures, our institutions, in our systems. I knew it was there, but to some extent, the pandemic ripped the Band-Aid off of this ugly wound that exists in America. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked hard to center the voices of our historically underserved community members, but you know, we cannot eradicate racism overnight. In fact, we must work intentionally and eradicate it brick by brick, just like it was built. I think the Oregon Health Authority has worked with over 170 community-based organizations from dealing with issues like how do we communicate to farmworkers in a native Guatemalan language? How do we communicate with people that are not able to read? How do we get the education and information out to these very vulnerable community members in a way that they can understand?
Miller: Let me ask you about another related effort that was tied to COVID relief, the Oregon Cares Fund. It was the state’s $62 million relief funds, specifically for Black Oregonians, businesses and organizations. From what I’ve seen, there was no other program quite like it in the country. Recipients have talked about it as a real lifeline. It also faced legal challenge from white and Latino Oregonians who said that they were unfairly excluded from this pot of money. Are you interested in doing other programs like this going forward?
Brown: Absolutely. There is no question that we need to support community with targeted community-based efforts, and that’s why the work of the racial justice council is so incredibly important. It is a council I stood up roughly a year ago. I asked for these community members from around the state to assist me in both budget development and legislative policy development. I believe most of the legislation that the racial justice council initiated got passed and a significant portion of the investments. So, absolutely, it is going to take time as we develop the specific data to respond to concerns. But we know this honestly, we know that our Black communities have suffered economically from criminal justice interventions, from lack of culturally appropriate health care. The numbers throughout the pandemic in terms of our Latino, Latina, Latinx communities were horrific. Still today, to this day, despite the fact that our Latino, Latina, Latinx community is 14% of our population, they are at least 23% of our positive IDs for COVID-19. So the impact of racism is broad and deep and we have to do everything we can to root them out and to ensure that we are doing this in a way that meets the needs of specific community members.
Miller: When do you plan to lift the emergency order that has given you the ability to close businesses and enact the other restrictions on public life that are now basically over?
Brown: We lifted the vast majority of those orders. … We are continuing to maintain emergency authority to ensure that we can provide state resources to communities around the state and access federal resources. This is no different than the continuing recovery efforts we have around wildfire.
Miller: I’m wondering how you think the pandemic has changed you as a governor.
Brown: I think all of us have been changed by this pandemic. I think my commitment, moving forward, to Oregonians is that we must work together to build a safer and a stronger, and a more just and equitable Oregon. And that’s going to be the focus of my work for the next year and a half.
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