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Oregon Epidemiologists Sought To Delay Brown's Reopening Plan

Public records reveal tension between political and health concerns at the highest levels of Oregon's government in late April, as reopening plans were finalized.
a woman and man sitting on a bench in a park with about 3 feet between them
June 5, 2020

Oregon Health Authority epidemiologists felt it would be "more prudent" to delay Gov. Kate Brown's reopening plans to later in May or June 1 to ensure the state could combat any resurgence of COVID-19, according to emails obtained by the Portland Tribune.

As Oregon sees a rise in new coronavirus cases over the past week, the newly disclosed records shed light on tension between political and health concerns at the highest levels of Oregon's government in late April, as reopening plans were finalized.

Brown has portrayed her decisions to significantly reopen the state starting May 15 as cautious and based squarely on input from health experts. The records, however, show that date was at the outside edge of what the state's epidemiologists felt was necessary to fight the disease. They wanted Brown to wait for new case counts to continue what had been a downward trend.

While Brown has said she's also had to balance the needs of people out of work and stuck at home, the records show the state's commitment to science at times may have felt shakier internally than it has publicly appeared.

On Thursday Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen, who has been spearheading Brown's response to the pandemic, said it's "fair" to interpret the records as showing his agency's epidemiologists preferred to wait until later in May or June 1 to reopen the state.

But Allen said Brown's retreat from an even earlier reopening date that had she had proposed internally, May 1, showed "that the governor ended up listening to what we were saying."

Brown on May 15 lifted restrictions on retail and daycare statewide and approved most of Oregon's counties to begin reopening.

She had been facing pressure from other sectors to reopen even sooner and faster, as the state's economy cratered.

Brown Considered May 1 Reopening

Due to that pressure, in the second half of April Brown directed Allen to explore launching the state's Phase 1 reopening on May 1, as opposed to the May 15 date that previously had been discussed, according to the records and interviews.

"The pressure was really coming on the governor from counties mostly, and to some degree from businesses to open sooner," Allen said Thursday of the emails' context, noting that some counties had threatened to open on their own without waiting. "And so there was a lot of conversation about that pressure."

That sparked the state's epidemiologists to reiterate concerns they'd previous expressed, according to emails between Allen and Brown's top aides, Chief of Staff, Nik Blosser, and her top health care adviser, Tina Edlund.

In an April 23 email to Blosser, and Edlund, Allen noted those concerns and proposed that the Brown administration "take a pause and think about our timing."

Allen wrote that a public opinion poll showed "broad support in Oregon for the current containment strategies in place," giving the governor political support and breathing room to consider the concerns that state public health experts had been raising.

Allen alluded to the problems the state had getting enough supplies from the federal government to ramp up testing to what was needed. He also wrote that "Dean" —the state's top epidemiologist, Dean Sidelinger — and his public health epidemiology team again had said they continued to prefer waiting before reopening, to allow "mitigations" to be in place, apparently referring to testing and contact tracing programs. The epidemiologists wanted more time for Oregon's downward trend of new cases to continue, thus making the virus easier to control when the state reopened.

"Given the window (that) yesterday's DHM survey gave us on the broad support in Oregon for the current containment strategies in place, I'm wondering if we might take a pause and think about our timing," Allen wrote. "I've checked in again with Dean and the epi team, and they continue to believe a re-open plan that begins in the mid-May to June 1 range is much more prudent. It allows us to reopen from a lower starting level of disease, and provides that much more time for our mitigations to be in place, including more time for federal efforts at supply on testing to materialize."

Allen added, "Would it make sense for us to schedule some time to talk some of this through and assess where we're at?"

Blosser responded and said they could talk on the afternoon of April 27.

The records show why Sidelinger and others were concerned. In an April 23 telephone survey conducted by the state, county health officials listed a litany of concerns about their ability to conduct necessary contact tracing after reopening.

Notes from an April 25 call with federal officials showed Allen told them the state needed to be able to test 25,000 people per week to control outbreaks after reopening, as opposed to the 10,000 the state was doing at the time.

Allen on Thursday said his statement had been an exaggerated "negotiating position" to secure more test supplies from the federal government.

As it turned out, even the May 15 reopening date disturbed some local officials. Later that day, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said local health officials needed time to gauge the effects of Brown's reopening of retail and daycare, and Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard said Brown should have waited until counties had their contact tracing systems in place to stamp down any potential resurgence.

Others have said Brown put politics over science in approving the reopening of counties facing active outbreaks, like Marion and Deschutes.

Early, But Within The Range

Asked about the emails Thursday, Blosser said they showed Brown did heed the science by launching the state's reopening on May 15, not May 1.

"The design and timeline of our reopening plan has been guided by science and the advice of doctors and state health experts," Blosser said in an email Thursday. "In the course of our conversations with OHA, our office agreed with their health experts that May 1 was too early to begin reopening."

Allen acknowledged the epidemiologists would have preferred reopening occur toward the later end of the range they provided him, June 1. But he said it was appropriate that Brown balanced their concerns against others.

"The reason that the governor makes the decision and not the epidemiologists, or OHA generally, is we're bringing a 100% health perspective —and there are a variety of risks and benefits and challenges that she has to weigh," he said.

Allen said that while the governor chose the early end of the range the epidemiologists provided, they wouldn't have offered it if it wasn't acceptable to them.

"We gave her a range of dates and she took that advice and she landed in the range of dates," Allen said. "The beginning of the range versus the end of the range, but in the range."

This story was published by the Portland Tribune and is posted her under an agreement to share coronavirus coverage among more than a dozen news outlets in Oregon.