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Governor will judge southwest Oregon's readiness to reopen

Jackson County is working to prove it meets Gov. Kate Brown’s criteria for a phased reopening that could allow some rural counties to open up more of their economies May 15.

County staff members have been gathering information, talking to local medical leaders and drafting a letter to the governor asking that state restrictions be eased on Jackson County.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners will meet via teleconference Friday, May 8, to review the draft letter and decide whether to send it.

But the county is facing a new challenge after receiving a list of seven prerequisites for reopening from the governor’s office Friday.

Jackson County learned southwest Oregon must meet some criteria as a region. Being prepared individually as a county isn’t enough.

Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Curry, Coos and Lane counties have been grouped together by the state.

Rogue Valley residents regularly flow back and forth between Jackson and Josephine counties, but have less interaction with counties on the coast or Lane County, which generally considers itself to be part of the Willamette Valley — not Southern Oregon.

“We have natural relationships and work well with Josephine County,” said Jackson County Health and Human Services Director Mark Orndoff.

Jackson and Josephine counties have had few new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

But Coos County is in the midst of a spike with 19 adults and two staff members testing positive for the contagious illness this month at the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, a state prison.

Under new state criteria, southwest Oregon must have robust COVID-19 testing capabilities, be able to handle a 20% surge in hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 symptoms and have enough personal protective equipment such as face masks for hospitals and first responders.

Jackson County feels it has adequate testing capacity but is checking with surrounding counties to see whether they are prepared, said Jackson County Roads and Parks Director John Vial, who is head of the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Dr. Jim Shames, the Jackson County medical director, said there are pros and cons to grouping southwest Oregon counties together for certain criteria.

Considering the region’s ability to handle a surge of hospitalized patients, for example, make sense. Patients could be moved to hospitals to receive the care they need, Shames said.

But Jackson County doesn’t yet know if surrounding counties have adequate personal protective equipment, he said.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure we’re up to capacity as a county. Regionally, I just don’t know,” Shames said.

He said the southwest Oregon counties have worked together before on some issues, but they don’t have a lot of experience teaming up, especially outside the Rogue Valley.

The state’s grouping of counties into health regions for reopening has created some logistical and communication challenges.

While counties in the Portland area that are grouped together are relatively close, some rural counties have been combined into far-flung groupings.

Hood River County along the Columbia Gorge, for example, is part of a 10-county group that stretches to Malheur County in the far southeast corner of the state — a nine-hour drive away.

Counties will be able to address some of the phase one reopening criteria individually.

They must show declining numbers of COVID-19 cases and have hotel rooms available for people who test positive but can’t self-isolate at home. Jackson County meets those standards.

The state wants each county to have a minimum of 15 contact tracers for every 100,000 people — meaning Jackson County would need at least 30 people available to trace those who came into contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

As of last week, the county had a team of five nurses doing contact tracing, and the ability to add 10 more nurses to the team.

Jackson County officials said they’re working to have more contact tracers available.

The governor announced Friday the state has a plan to train and deploy 600 contact tracers to augment the work of local public health workers around the state.

Jackson County learned this week the state is beefing up standards for who has to be contacted when someone tests positive for COVID-19.

People who were within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for at least one hour had to be contacted. The new standard will be 15 minutes.

That will increase the number of people who have to be tracked down and advised to go into self-quarantine.

Other criteria for counties to win a partial lifting of COVID-19 restrictions include that different business sectors comply with state guidelines to protect workers and customers.

State Rep. Pam Marsh, who represents southern Jackson County, said in a newsletter Friday that life will look different under the first phase of reopening.

“Industry work groups are developing guidelines for specific sectors, including restaurants, retail, personal services and child care, that will outline operational adjustments such as distancing requirements for employees and customers, appropriate signage, and cleaning and disinfection standards,” Marsh said. “Employees will be encouraged to continue working from home when possible, and gatherings will be limited to small groups.”

Marsh said subsequent phases will allow gradually larger gatherings, increased capacity for restaurants, and reopening of facilities where personal contact is common, such as bars and gyms. Larger facilities, including theaters and sports arenas, will likely be among the last businesses to restart.

The governor said the state will closely monitor COVID-19 infections and could pull back on the easing of restrictions if cases surge.

Shames said the state is adopting a science-based approach to dealing with the pandemic.

“I was impressed with what the governor came up with, and I felt a sense of relief. It answered a lot of questions I had. The state is doing a lot of good thinking and planning,” he said.

Shames said he was pleasantly surprised by the unveiling Friday of a new statewide plan to monitor 100,000 randomly chosen volunteers for a year and test 10,000 people without symptoms for COVID-19.

The effort will build better understanding of the virus, including how prevalent it is in communities.

“It’s another layer of information that will be helpful to the whole state,” Shames said. “I feel like the governor is listening to the experts.”

Jackson County has 49 COVID-19 cases. No one has died, although some people had to be hospitalized.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Jackson County Board of Commissioners will meet via teleconference Friday, May 8, to review the draft letter and decide whether it meets Gov. Kate Brown's requirements for phase one reopening