Oregon Health Authority Makes Change After Ridicule Over COVID-19 Clown Video


The Oregon Health Authority director announced a shift in responsibility for its public messages following widespread ridicule after an agency staffer donned a clown costume and gave a Halloween-themed update on the latest COVID-19 toll.

The update on Facebook Live  -- intended as a tool to emphasize safety during Halloween -- put Oregon on the map. It started with the sad-faced clown -- played by Dr. Claire Poché, a health authority physician -- reporting the latest COVID-19 statistics, including three deaths. After her presentation, she and another costumed agency official gave safety tips on Halloween.

The event drew global ridicule as it went viral on social media after a journalist with The Oregonian/OregonLive tweeted out a screengrab of the clown. Outlets from TMZ to the Daily Mail reported the blunder. Tweeters dubbed it the OHA Death Clown. Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist. 

The health authority has not removed the video but on Tuesday Director Patrick Allen reacted with a staff memo about the “distracting publicity.” He said in the future communications director Robb Cowie will approve all reports of COVID-19 reports and deaths that go out to the public. Allen defended the two staffers who put the costumed presentation together, but lamented the “unfortunate juxtaposition of image and information.”

“A reporter highlighted the video on social media, and we received a round of national and even international notoriety that’s lasted several days,” Allen said in the email, which The Lund Report obtained.

Allen praised the intent behind the Facebook Live event --  to provide safety information before a holiday. Besides Poché, Dr. Shimi Sharief, also a public health physician, donned a bunny costume. 

Poché warned that trick-or-treating is high risk because kids will get excited and crowd someone who isn’t a member of their household. The clip remains on the authority’s YouTube channel. Comments are turned off. 

Allen said he appreciates and supports the two, adding that every holiday has been a super-spreader event for the virus and their goal was to prevent a repeat. 

“True to the program’s theme, our doctors dressed in costume,” Allen said. “In keeping with the established format, our physicians opened the program by announcing the day’s COVID-19 case totals and deaths.”

Allen said the agency mourns each death from COVID-19 and regrets the authority announced the three deaths during an event focused on preventing the spread of the virus during Halloween. Allen said the experience gives the authority a teachable moment.

“We’ll learn the lessons from this episode,” Allen said. “As the state’s health experts, we need to remember that we’re under intense and understandable scrutiny.”

To drive the point home, Allen offered another example: “My own Halloween actions have been put under the microscope by the media.” Allen linked to a Willamette Week report about his choice to give out Halloween candy to neighborhood children from a table at the end of his driveway, despite Gov. Kate Brown and his agency warning families not to go trick-or-treating. 

“People look to us for accurate and reliable information, and they rightly hold us to the highest standards in reporting that information,” Allen said.

The YouTube link has nearly 100,000 views so far. In the clip, Poché spoke about her choice of costume, well before she knew that her appearance would become a viral sensation. She said that in recent years, clowns have been “relegated to birthday parties” due to “bad actors” in recent years during Halloween. 

“I’m hoping to bring us back as the fun-loving and happy clowns that we have always been,” Poché said.

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




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