COVID-19 Infection At State Capitol Shuts Down House Floor Sessions

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 A COVID-19 infection shut down proceedings on the House floor in the Oregon state capitol for the rest of this week, as lawmakers in the lower chamber go into quarantine after a potential exposure. 

The office of House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, announced on Monday that the capitol had a “potential exposure” from a person who tested positive after being on the floor of the state House of Representatives on March 15 and 16. The Legislature’s human resources office is notifying everyone who appeared to have close contact with the individual, who tested positive for COVID-19 after being on the House floor. 

It’s unclear if the individual was a lawmaker, staffer or someone else. State officials would not identify the person, citing medical privacy laws. 

The Legislature consulted with Marion County Public Health and determined that all symptom-free people who were on the House floor should quarantine for 10 days following the last exposure, which puts the shutdown through Friday.
However, legislative committees, which meet remotely, will continue during the quarantine. Anyone with symptoms must be tested and stay in quarantine for at least 14 days. State capitol staff will fumigate the House chamber and continue to clean the Capitol. 

The typical bustle of lawmakers, lobbyists and school tour groups is absent this session. The Legislature went to great lengths to halt COVID-19 spread during the session, barring public access, using virtual meetings and setting up screens outside the state capitol for people to watch proceedings. 

Counties Wish For Better Coordination

Despite the quarantine, dealing with COVID-19 remains a legislative priority.

At the House COVID-19 Subcommittee meeting Monday, commissioners from Multnomah and Baker counties lamented weak communication and coordination among federal, state and local authorities in public messaging and vaccine distribution.
Thirteen Oregon counties -- including Baker -- have signed attestation letters signalling their plan to immediately offer COVID-19 vaccinations to expanded eligibility groups ahead of the March 29 date for the next step in the rollout expansion. The added groups include migrant and seasonal farm workers, adults 45 to 64 with underlying health conditions, seafood and agricultural workers, food processing workers and people in low income, senior congregate and independent living facilities and low-income housing for seniors. Staff and residents in long-term care facilities like nursing homes were in the first group to get vaccinated. 

The 13 counties are: Baker, Benton, Deschutes, Grant, Jefferson, Lake, Lincoln, Malheur, Marion, Morrow, Polk, Umatilla and Union, the Oregon Health Authority said. 

Multnomah Commissioner Sharon Meieran told lawmakers that her county is focused on getting vaccines to the most vulnerable, including elderly people in small adult foster homes, people with disabilities and others. Meieran, an emergency room doctor, said the county has mobile outreach teams that go to homes and administer the vaccine to people with mobility challenges, which requires significant planning.

Multnomah County officials are working with local clinics and other partners to prepare for surges in demand as the vaccine rollout continues, with an eye on the next 30 to 90 days as dosage shipments increase and the state widens eligibility. Meieran said that with better coordination, the county would have fewer demographic vaccination gaps to fill.

Much of the problem has to do with how difficult it is to understand the labyrinthine vaccination system. Specifically, Meieran said that better communication and coordination between the county and state is key, because the vaccine allocation system is “trifurcated,” with doses that go to counties, long-term care facilities, federally qualified health care centers and others. The Oregon Health Authority allocates doses statewide, but the federal government separately also sends doses to pharmacies and federally qualified health centers. At the local level, many providers set up clinics or other vaccination events, each of which is run by unique rules.

“No one has that big picture,” Meieran said, adding that people “fall through gaps between systems because there’s such a separation.”

People who are young and have internet access can go to a mass vaccination site at a moment’s notice, but the most vulnerable people cannot, Meieran said.

Meieran said Multnomah County has come up with its own communication strategies without relying heavily on the Oregon Health Authority.

“Some of the communications from the Oregon Health Authority are really confusing and I have difficulty following some of them,” she said. Meieran said that out of necessity, Multnomah County has “come up with its own strategy” to convey messages.

Some Baker County Residents Blame China

Mark Bennett, a commissioner in Baker County, offered a rural perspective from the eastern Oregon region of nearly 17,000 people.

Bennett, who serves as incident commander for the county, said the county worked to put out public information.
Noting that it’s a politically conservative, rural county, he said some residents suggested the virus was “an invasion from China,” or other offbeat theories. 

Bennett agreed that better coordination would help and that the mix of federal, state and local agencies in public outreach and vaccine distribution makes for complexity.

“We’re peanuts compared to Multnomah County, but I believe there should be some stronger leadership,” he said. He didn’t specify who should be providing that leadership. Bennett said the county is willing to share its unused doses if other counties run short, but that effort needs to be coordinated.

Bennett said state, local and federal officials should continue to hammer home the message that the pandemic is not over yet.
Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, the subcommittee chair, said she hopes to hear from Bennett and Meieran in the future as the state looks at lessons learned, noting they bring expertise to the discussion with their backgrounds in medicine and incident commander work. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.


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