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Short-term resolution enables state and federal aid, streamlined purchasing; specific measures will wait.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Dr. Christina Baumann, right, Washington County's public health officer, speaks to county commissioners about the COVID-19 virus before the board passed an emergency resolution on Wednesday, March 4. At left is John Wheeler, interim county emergency program manager.Washington County commissioners have passed an emergency declaration, empowering agencies to work together to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus resulting in COVID-19 disease.

The commissioners acted Wednesday afternoon, March 4, after they heard from Dr. Christina Baumann, the county health officer; County Counsel Alan Rappleyea and John Wheeler, interim emergency program manager.

Rappleyea said only the state can declare a public health "emergency," but the county resolution does specify that a health hazard exists that requires county action. The most recent comparable declaration was after widespread flooding in 1996.

The resolution by the commissioners does not invoke specific measures, such as regulating public gatherings or setting curfews, without officials returning to the board for approval. It expires on March 18, although the county board can renew it.

But the resolution enables the county to seek state and federal aid — and reimbursement to offset county expenses for its response to the virus — and streamlines purchases of goods and services as allowed by Oregon law during emergencies. It also allows the county to take steps under its code to protect public health under state law, and those steps can be potentially wide-ranging.

"We are asking for assistance, but we are not specifically asking for those powers listed in our ordinance," Rappleyea said. "If need be, we will come back to the board and seek guidance."

It's similar to a resolution approved Monday, March 2, by Clackamas County commissioners.

The resolution follows preliminary tests on Feb. 28 that a Washington County resident — the first in Oregon — had contracted the COVID-19 virus. That person, an employee at Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego, was taken to Kaiser Permanent Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro.

"There is no known connection to travel or other persons diagnosed with COVID-19," Baumann said.

A second person with close contact to the first was diagnosed on March 1 — the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed one of the two cases as positive — and a third was identified Monday from Umatilla County.

Though the Oregon Health Authority has taken the lead in announcements about COVID-19 cases, county health department staffs are contacting, monitoring and evaluating people who might have been exposed to the illness. Counties also are taking the lead in educating the public, schools and businesses about what is and what is not true about the virus.

"This emergency declaration will help our Public Health Division with additional resources as we continue to pursue our local role of investigating potential cases, monitoring the spread of illness, coordinating with our partner agencies and medical providers and keeping the public informed," Tricia Mortell, the division manager, said in a statement after the board action.

"Our community is understandably concerned about this new virus and the impact it has been having here in the Pacific Northwest and around the world," Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington said in a news release. "This emergency declaration does not indicate that the public is at any greater risk. The declaration is meant to give our county public health staff the flexibility and support it needs to quickly purchase supplies, organize our response over the weeks ahead and seek potential state and federal resources as they become available. Our full Board of Commissioners has great confidence in the work our county public health staff are doing, in partnership with our neighboring counties, the state of Oregon and federal agencies, and we want to give them every advantage this declaration can provide."

Baumann said her advice boils down to a few points already noted by others: People should stay home if they feel sick. They should practice good hygiene by washing their hands thoroughly and covering their coughs. If people feel they need medical attention, they should call to make arrangements in advance so that they do not spread disease to others.

"They are tried and true measures, they work for the coronavirus and the flu, and they work for other diseases," she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, March 3, Washington County partly activated its emergency operations center to funnel all county responses through a single outlet and coordinate their efforts with other governments.

All five commissioners took part in Wednesday's discussion, though Commissioner Roy Rogers did so by phone.

Three commissioners — Harrington, Pam Treece and Jerry Willey — had been in Washington, D.C., for the winter conference of the National Association of Counties, so the emergency meeting was convened Wednesday, 24 hours after notice was posted.

Harrington said she appreciated the practical advice about how to avoid being infected. She said she read a news account about a couple that just returned to Beaverton from South Korea, which ranks second only to China in the number of COVID-19 cases reported at 5,328 as of Wednesday, March 4. The couple are isolating themselves voluntarily for 14 days, which Harrington termed "admirable"; they are halfway through the period, according to Willamette Week's report.

Read Willamette Week's story published March 4, 2020.

"You have been very clear about what precautions help in this situation," Harrington said. "I also appreciate the guidance about social distancing. I have a cold right now, so I am trying to be practical about not being too close to people and sharing my germs."

Oregon's first case of COVID-19 was announced Friday evening, Feb. 28, after a Hillsboro resident who worked at a school in Lake Oswego was tested for the virus. It was confirmed by the Oregon Health Authority this week. Another adult in the same household also tested positive, but did not require medical attention, according to the Oregon Health Authority. A third person from Umatilla County also tested positive, and was hospitalized in Walla Walla, Washington.

As of March 3, three people have tested positive for the virus, another 18 cases are pending, and 115 people are currently being monitored for symptoms, the OHA reported.


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