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Jackson County commissioners declare state of emergency

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners unanimously declared a state of emergency Thursday as part of efforts to minimize the COVID-19 threat to the public and county workers, and to help prevent a surge of infections from overwhelming the health care system.

“This is not designed to cause any panic for the citizens of Jackson County. It is part of the process of preparing,” said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The county has two confirmed cases of COVID-19, but no one has died.

The state and nation are in the midst of ramping up testing capabilities at labs, but there is a backlog of cases.

The state of emergency authorizes Jackson County to take action on a variety of fronts to help the community.

The county can do emergency procurement of goods and services, including personnel protective gear such as face masks and face shields.

The county can enter into mutual aid agreements with cities and neighboring counties, enforce emergency measures to protect the public, and request assistance and potential reimbursement for response and recovery efforts from the state of Oregon and federal agencies.

The county is also adapting personnel leave, policies, workplace requirements and job duties for county employees.

“The Board of Commissioners is committed to following the steps needed to keep the people of Jackson County safe,” said Colleen Roberts, chair of the board. “We do not know what is ahead but we are in this together. We all need to follow the steps that create a community with a desire to have the least people possible contract the novel coronavirus.”

Jordan said the COVID-19 pandemic has required a change in how most county employees think about work.

“I was raised you go to work and you’re there and people see you working,” he said.

County workers who have jobs that are compatible with telecommuting are being asked to stay away from their job sites and do their work at home. Managers will be measuring productivity outcomes, not looking to see if people are sitting in office chairs, Jordan said.

The county has jacked up the amount of bandwidth it has available to accommodate the surge of employees working remotely, he said.

For people who have to come into offices, Jordan has asked them to avoid face-to-face interactions. Even if they sit two cubicles away from each other, they’ve been advised to pick up the phone and call each other.

County buildings will operate with skeleton crews. Members of the public are urged to call or email county departments before visiting in person and to use the Internet, phones and email to conduct business with county workers whenever possible.

Appointments may be required for some services normally available on a walk-in basis. Those who visit county buildings should avoid congregating together in lobbies and maintain a distance from others.

Many people who drop by the historic Jackson County Courthouse at 10 S. Oakdale Ave. in Medford to pay their taxes want to hand checks to workers, but they’re being told to mail payments or use a drop box.

The county is taking steps to minimize any potential spread of illness among workers who have to be at job sites.

Dozens of county road workers used to gather each morning for a briefing on their work assignments for the day. Now road workers have been divided into four groups and they get information in separate locations, Jordan said.

If one group of road workers falls ill, the rest can keep going, he said.

County employees who travel by air must self-quarantine for 14 days before they can return to job sites, he said.

The county is looking to adapt its sick leave policies to handle employees who use up all their paid sick leave but are still at home feeling ill, Jordan said.

Public health officials have asked people with a cough and fever to stay home and avoid public places. Most likely just have a cold or the flu, but health officials want the public to take extra precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has overwhelmed the health care systems of some nations.

The three Jackson County commissioners will hold their last meeting next week on Wednesday about a major construction project. After that, their regular public meetings are canceled through May.

The county is making plans to hold virtual county commissioner meetings if needed, Jordan said.

County commissioners can still come into their offices to work, but Jordan has recommended they do as much work as possible remotely. He has asked them to remain reachable by cellphone or email so county workers can contact them to discuss day-to-day or urgent issues.

To avoid delays due to the lack of county commission meetings, commissioners authorized Jordan to sign major contracts. He will keep them informed about the contracts, and they have authority to cancel contracts if they believe Jordan makes a mistake.

“I have strong trust and confidence that it will be done properly,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer.

Commissioner Bob Strosser added, “We’ve been kept well-informed.”

So far, a state law is still in effect that mandates the Jackson County Citizens Budget Committee meet to oversee the county’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.

All other county advisory committee and commission meetings have been suspended. Volunteers from the community sit on those advisory panels to research topics and provide recommendations to county commissioners.

Jordan said the county has been fielding requests from people asking about everything from dog food shortages on some store shelves to how to apply for federal small business emergency relief.

Those issues don’t fall under county services, but the county is working to make a list of organizations and government agencies that workers can refer people to for answers, Jordan said.

He emphasized that information is changing constantly and the county wants to refer people to websites where they can get the most current information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which provides updates on COVID-19.

Jordan asked everyone to avoid spreading rumors and look to reliable sources for information in the fast-changing COVID-19 landscape.

He noted some people are stockpiling groceries and household items. Jordan has been in contact with grocery store managers who say the supply chain and the American agricultural system remain strong.

More goods are on the way or sitting behind the scenes in stock rooms. Some grocery stores have limited their hours not because of supply chain disruptions, but because their workers need more time to restock shelves, grocery store managers have told the county.

As for homeless people who fall sick, the county has worked with the business community to find safe places for them to recover in isolation. Jordan said he isn’t identifying those locations to preserve the privacy of homeless people.

As is the case for everyone, homeless people will receive care if they need to be hospitalized.

The county previously issued information about a partial closure of the county parks system and delayed seasonal openings for some facilities.

The Jackson County Jail and the Transition Center have halted visitation to limit the spread of any illnesses, Jordan said.

New inmates are receiving heightened health screening during intake and extra precautions are being taken to keep the jail sanitary.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has put a temporary hold on processing concealed handgun licenses because the process requires fingerprinting of applicants.

For Jackson County updates and more information, including a list of changes at departments commonly used by the public, visit jacksoncountyor.org.

In neighboring Josephine County, county commissioners there voted Thursday to issue their own emergency declaration that allows expedited actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

No COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Josephine County, but public health officials said they recognize the disease is either likely present and undetected at this time or the virus will make its way to the county soon.

Across Oregon, 88 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed as of Thursday afternoon.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.