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Ashland emergency declaration extended to Oct. 19

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschEmpty Streets in downtown Ashland during the March 2020 COVID-19 shut down.
Council sends letter urging Jackson County Commissioners to encourage public vaccination, masking

Ashland City Council on Tuesday extended the city’s COVID-19 emergency declaration to Oct. 19.

“COVID has returned,” said interim City Manager Gary Milliman. “We’re dealing with a variety of issues both internally and externally that are impacted by the continuing rise of COVID.”

Milliman said emergency declarations should remain active only “for a necessary period,” and he does not intend to recommend perpetuating a declaration beyond the requisite time.

Jackson County reported 345 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, and 182 people were hospitalized with the disease in Jackson and Josephine counties. The majority of new cases were among people ages 20-49, and most hospitalized patients were older than 60.

The vaccination rate for ZIP code 97520 (Ashland) was 70.6% Thursday, and 46.1% across Jackson County.

The emergency declaration “is intended to continue authorization to take special measures to protect citizens’ health and safety” and secure the continuation of critical public services, according to Milliman’s council report.

While under emergency management, the city can continue to access federal and state emergency reimbursement funds and bypass certain procedures to quickly respond to emergent situations, and commissions and boards can continue to meet virtually without a formal change to their bylaws, according to the report.

“We are in a situation where hospital beds are filling up fast and are not able to take people with other medical emergencies, so clearly this is a very serious situation,” Mayor Julie Akins said.

Human resource staff are focused on addressing challenges regarding vaccination and alternative testing requirements enacted by Gov. Kate Brown, which particularly affect staff in the fire service, Milliman said.

Brown announced Thursday that health care workers, K-12 educators, school staff and volunteers must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, whichever falls later, and health care workers may no longer use a testing alternative to a vaccine.

City Council approved sending a letter to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, written by Councilor Tonya Graham, calling on the commissioners to “wholeheartedly get behind recommendations of the county health department in terms of vaccination and masking,” Graham said.

According to Jackson County Public Health, “the best way to stop the spread of the delta variant is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear a mask.”

The letter cites recent COVID-19 case numbers and high rates of hospitalization among nonvaccinated patients as factors that pushed the medical system to a “breaking point,” leading to denied critical care, canceled surgeries and overworked health care staff.

“Anything less than strong, vocal support for residents to follow the advice of the county’s health department to get vaccinated and to comply with the mask mandate encourages the widespread suspicion of the vaccine that is preventing us from getting this pandemic under control,” Graham wrote.

“The rapid spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated people is costing us dearly,” by exhausting medical workers, impeding care for patients with other emergency needs, disrupting the economy, schools and daily activities, and ending the lives of county residents, she wrote.

Councilor Paula Hyatt said with the National Guard arriving in Jackson County, schools reopening, and high positive test rates and low vaccination rates countywide, the letter and emergency declaration extension were “prudent and necessary.”

Councilor Gina DuQuenne said she supported sending the letter due to the urgency of the situation, with the hope that other municipalities will follow suit.

Councilor Shaun Moran cast the single nay vote, stating he viewed the letter as a step too far out of Ashland City Council’s lane of governance.

“I firmly believe that we shouldn’t be pontificating to anyone,” said Moran, confirming he and his family have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Moran said directing other elected bodies on what to do (via the letter) may contribute to a sense of “Ashland elitism,” and councilors should focus on leading actions within the city.

Graham said the ongoing pandemic has direct and severe impacts on Ashland city services and staff, and the city’s large population of elderly residents face the possibility that they won’t receive care in an emergency.

The letter will be signed by Akins and Graham, council president, and sent to the Jackson County commissioners, who next meet in regular session Aug. 25.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.