Legislative Panel Approves $5 Million For Coronavirus Response -- For Now

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The Oregon legislative emergency board on Monday approved $5 million for the Oregon Health Authority’s efforts to fight coronavirus. 

More money may be needed in the future as the outbreak grows, lawmakers warned.

The action came four days after the Legislature adjourned, with Democratic lawmakers unable to pass budget bills or other legislation after a Republican-led walkout over cap-and-trade legislation prevented the Legislature from reaching a quorum. 

The $5 million in state funding is just part of Oregon's financial arsenal for responding to COVID-19. The legislative panel's decision also opens the floodgates for the health authority to spend an additional $20 million in federal funding that Oregon officials anticipate from the $8.3 billion package Congress passed to fight coronavirus. 

Legislative leaders said it’s uncertain if this will be all the state needs to spend as public health officials continue to monitor and respond to the spread of the virus in Oregon. 

“We don’t know,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said. “We simply don’t know.”

Courtney added: “This thing is very dynamic and I have to say, we may be back again for money because of this thing. Anyone who says this is it is mistaken.”

Gov. Kate Brown, in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence last week, said the state anticipates needing $7 million to $10 million a month to respond to the outbreak. The state needs to pay for rural and frontier health care providers, quarantine space for homeless people and personal protective equipment including N-95 respirators, gowns, gloves and protective suits.

Oregon hospitals have 510 low-pressure isolation rooms, which are used for patients with highly contagious conditions to prevent infections from spreading, according to the 2018 survey of the American Hospital Association. The Portland area has about half of the isolation rooms, said Dave Northfield, spokesman for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. 

Oregon now has 14 people who have tested positive for coronavirus. Another 53 test results are pending and 165 people with symptoms have tested negative for COVID-19.

On Monday,  226 people were under monitoring because they had close contact with someone who tested positive but didn't have symptoms. These people are supposed to stay at home and take their temperature. A fever is a sign of infection.

There are 603 confirmed cases and 22 deaths in the United States, according to the John Hopkins University tracker. Most deaths have been in Washington state.

As cases mounted during the weekend, Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency to deal with COVID-19, a move that allows the state to activate volunteer health care professionals to assist public health officials in identifying coronavirus cases and expand containment efforts, for example, by offering telemedicine services. The declaration is for a 60-day period, but could be extended.

Public health officials believe the actual number of cases are "much more widespread," Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and health officer, told reporters on Monday. State officials are urging anyone with respiratory illness to stay away from large gatherings, stay home and avoid visiting people in long-term care facilities.

Major insurers have an agreement with the state to waive co-pays and deductibles for customers who need COVID-19 testing.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, said state public health officials will communicate needs as they develop.

“They’re not shy about letting us know when they need more money, especially for an emergency like this,” she said.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he was concerned the money may not be enough when considering the spread of the outbreak and the situation in Washington state.

“I’m nervous that this may or may not be enough money,” he said. 

After the meeting, Courtney thanked his Republican colleagues for coming and said it was a “good day” for the Legislature to work together beyond their differences to address pressing needs in the state. 

“I like to think human nature can come together,” he said.

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

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