April 3, 2020

Multnomah County State of the County

Prepared remarks for Chair Deborah Kafoury

Delivered April 3, 2020


Good afternoon, I’m Deborah Kafoury, your Multnomah County Chair. I use she/her pronouns.

To those of you watching the stream right now, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to join me today, albeit virtually. 

I feel especially honored to have the chance to connect with you in the midst of the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also feel proud to stand here today to share with you the state of Multnomah County. Because the power and presence of our community — of Multnomah County — remains a grounding force now more than ever. 

But I’m going to be up front with you: this 2020 State of the County address is going to depart from those of the past. Instead of being together in an event space, I’m speaking to you from a nearly empty conference room in our Health Department Headquarters, where I moved my office in an effort to respond more quickly to this crisis.

And to do what we usually do — focus on telling the story of the County’s accomplishments over the last year, and there are many — would feel out of touch with the state of our world, and more specifically with our own community. 

So looking back isn’t what we need most right now. Rather, I’d like to use this time to share how Multnomah County is responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Because what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, says a whole lot about who Multnomah County is and always has been; about our values, which are enduring; about our role, which is steady; and about our dedication to serving the community, which has never flagged. 

And in so doing, we move forward together with confidence as a community — led by the very same values and priorities that will help us get through this crisis.

So let me tell you in a single word what I believe the State of the County is at this specific moment in time: grateful. 

First, grateful that many of us can practice physical distancing with our families or roommates; that we can remain in touch with our loved ones; and that we’ve made it through another wet northwest winter. 

Grateful to all those who continue to go to work every morning or evening to jobs that everyone now understands are, and always have been, essential to daily life: whether that’s caregiving, delivering food, mail or packages, collecting trash, or serving on the front lines in a hospital, a nursing home or a homeless shelter.

So while the President continues to worry about the stock market, I think all of us owe a debt of gratitude to those who literally stock our markets with nourishment and small necessities.

Grateful that this community has offered the best of itself to each other during this trying time. 

And I feel truly grateful that Multnomah County had the prudence to begin preparing for COVID-19 early, before it even had a name. We launched our initial response team on January 28th, a week after the first case of the virus was recognized in the U.S., in Washington state. A month later, we fully activated our emergency operations center. County employees have worked around the clock since, rising to meet the rapidly emerging needs of this public health emergency.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this crisis has already changed us, and it will continue to alter the way our world works. But my hope is that it also recalibrates our understanding of who and what matters: the daily effort to do what is right, to serve our community with compassion, to ensure equal and equitable treatment, to protect families and to look out for our vulnerable neighbors. 

In essence, the work of Multnomah County.

Over the course of a few short weeks, the depth, breadth and swiftness of COVID-19’s impact on our community has thrown a spotlight onto the many crises that existed in our community before this pandemic: the crisis of homelessness and housing affordability; of food instability and domestic violence; of underemployment and over-incarceration; of disparities in our healthcare and shortcomings in how we support older adults and working families.

This pandemic also exposes the pervasive role of racism in America, which causes all these inequities to be experienced more deeply and more acutely in communities of color. 

In short order, the arrival of COVID-19 has done more than exacerbate the disparities and inequities that people experience. It’s thrown back the curtain so that no one can deny that these crises exist in every community.

But just as these challenges are not new, neither is Multnomah County’s work to address them. In fact, stepping into these disparities to bridge the gap between how things are and how things should be is at the core of the County’s mission. It’s what sets Multnomah County apart from other institutions. 

Multnomah County shows up for our neighbors living on the edge or on the margins. For our neighbors feeling desperate and at their wits’ end. For our neighbors facing impossible decisions. We lean into these problems because we know how critical it is to act.

Public Health Response

Since day 1 of this emergency, our Public Health department has been at the forefront of the County’s response. Their role — protecting our community — has never been more critical or more challenging. And they continue to respond with grace every day. 

Nurses and epidemiologists from our Communicable Disease Services team have answered hundreds of calls, contacted every County resident who’s tested positive for COVID-19, and followed up with more than 350 people who were their closest contacts. They’ve worked tirelessly to understand the virus and its spread in our community, and just this week unveiled a regional data dashboard of COVID-19 cases across four counties, detailing everything from the common symptoms to the number of hospitalizations. 

In conjunction with Emergency Operations and county communications, they quickly set up a centralized public COVID-19 website to provide the community with vital information, resources and guidance that takes away some of the fear of something so unknown. 

Dr. Jennifer Vines, our expert health officer and scientist-in-residence, has led the Portland metro-area response, guiding our policy decisions, partnering with the state and our hospital systems, and informing the public through regular press events. Dr. Vines has been the exact authority our community has needed throughout this unsettling time, and we are so fortunate to have her at the helm.

And throughout their response, Public Health has kept equity at the forefront. Because it’s not just a lens we occasionally look through, but a way of seeing the world and approaching our work in partnership with those we serve. 

COVID-19 information has been translated into 24 languages, and we’re working on creating audio in 20 additional languages that lend themselves better to an auditory medium. We’ve been intentional about communicating directly with organizations that focus on serving people of color to make sure they are receiving the information they need to work with their clients as safely as possible. 

Public Health has also called on its Advisory Board to shape some of our most sensitive recommendations, helping us think through how issues like physical distancing intersect with diverse cultural values.

Housing and Shelter

My highest priority, from the beginning, has been to slow the spread of this virus. We know a key strategy is to stay home. But people who don’t have a home can’t stay in one. So I’m making sure people can stay in their housing during this pandemic. It is a public health imperative. 

That’s why, on March 17, I ordered a temporary moratorium on residential evictions. 

Housing is probably the single most important piece of financial and emotional security we can provide, especially as an unprecedented number of people lose their jobs or see their incomes plummet. That’s also why we’ve been laser-focused on our neighbors who do not have housing and are particularly vulnerable to the virus: because when you don’t have a home, you can’t stay at home.

At the beginning of March, we worked with 14 organizations to contact more than 2,500 people who are staying outside and hand out hygiene products and information.

Instead of closing them, we kept our two winter shelters open and in a period of just two weeks, we opened four temporary shelters to create physical distancing between shelter residents.

I cannot say how proud I am to see the community collaboration that led to us opening the Oregon Convention Center, the Charles Jordan and East Portland Community Centers, and on Monday, Mt. Scott Community Center, so nearly 1,000 very vulnerable people across our shelter system can physical distance in shelter.

Working with public health and the Joint Office of Homeless Services, we began planning for what to do if someone in shelter shows symptoms of the virus, but doesn’t yet have a test. 

One morning David Mogg from the Jupiter Hotel heard me on the radio asking for hotel space where medically vulnerable shelter residents could stay. He called my office, and by 3 o’clock that afternoon, we had an agreement, and by that weekend, people were moving in.

We have seen that same generosity in the hundreds of non-profit workers and volunteers who are keeping our shelters, meal programs, supportive housing and outreach programs going during this critical time. They have met uncertainty and fear with courage and grace. Thank you.

County Employees Step Up

County employees have also stepped up. 

Percy Winters, Jr. works in the Health Department managing contracts for vital services. He’s also the president of our largest employee union, AFSCME Local 88. 

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, he has been working to set up and staff shelters, to “help bend the curve and to help people who need it.”

Percy’s message to fellow employees, “If there’s anything out there that you can do — you can be a part of this. Help out — they need you, we need you. “ 

COVID’s Impact on Families and Older Adults

We all know that staying at home under the governor’s executive order is challenging. But for domestic violence survivors and people in abusive relationships, staying home may not be safe. In fact, it might be more dangerous than before and, in some cases, lethal.

To protect families in danger of abuse, we have moved quickly to make a $100,000 emergency investment into hotel vouchers.

The closure of schools across the state, while necessary, threw thousands of families’ routines into chaos and laid bare the dearth of affordable childcare options, especially when they’re needed in a pinch.

In the first days of the school closures, I heard from many County employees whose roles required them to come into work, but simply could not find affordable or appropriate childcare. 

So what did Multnomah County do? We stood up subsidized child care for essential county workers, partnering with several local childcare providers. 

Among them was OMSI, who had the personnel, the facility and the flexibility to step up and provide care for the kids of County employees. And from what I hear, the OMSI staff have poured their passion for exploration and curiosity into our County kids. Thank you, OMSI.

COVID-19-related school closures also exposed just how many families rely on schools to provide their children with healthy, consistent meals. I want to personally thank our school districts partners who have worked since day one to provide breakfast and lunches to thousands of school kids.

I also want to give a shout out to our amazing partners in the SUN Community Schools network. It would be impossible to thank just one person or just one organization because since the schools closed, our SUN nonprofit partners have quadrupled their efforts to provide food boxes to help our families in greatest need. 

The result is that hundreds of adults across our SUN partnership have worked at 20 different sites in six school districts to make sure more than 1,500 households a week do not go hungry. That is community resilience.

But we also know that food insecurity transcends age. The disruption of daily life caused by COVID-19 puts older adults in our community at risk of going without food, and without human connection, too. 

Few understand this better than the County’s Aging, Disability & Veterans Services Division, which is leveraging its network of partners to reach out to older adults, even those who aren’t already engaged with our services. They’re arranging meal deliveries and offering other kinds of support that send the message to our seniors that we will not leave them behind. It’s a connection that County partners do with their whole hearts. 

Just ask Cynthia.

Cynthia is a former landscape designer who lives by herself in Southeast Portland, and she’s made a deep connection with Amanda, a staff member from Store to Door, one of the County’s partners. Amanda makes sure that Cynthia has groceries, prescriptions and the right pet food to feed her birds on the back patio. Without their relationship, Cynthia says she’d be “Up a creek.” 

Over the last few weeks, they’ve been saying hi, chatting and laughing - from a safe distance. 

Yesterday was Cynthia’s 75th birthday, and while they would have loved to share a hug, a warm smile and conversation from six feet away had to do. Still, Cynthia says that connection is “such a wonderful thing to have right now.”

Well, Cynthia, if you’re watching, happy birthday from all of Multnomah County. And thank you, Amanda, for being a friend.

For people of all ages, the Multnomah County Library system continues to offer a vast world of online and virtual enrichment. 

Deciding to close all the libraries on March 13 was one of the toughest choices we’ve had to make since we started dealing with COVID-19. We know how much Multnomah County residents from all walks of life love and treasure our library branches.

But closing them early on was a necessary action to keep our community as safe and healthy as possible, and it served as a clear sign that the County was taking slowing the spread of the virus extremely seriously. 

The Multnomah County Library has been a huge part of my life since I was a kid growing up in Northeast Portland, and I can’t wait for the day the doors of our libraries swing open to welcome our community back in.

Public Safety

During this pandemic, it’s especially important to remember the justice-involved individuals in our care. They are, on the whole, less healthy and more vulnerable to complications caused by the virus. 

Our public safety partners realized early on the possibility for an outbreak in our jails, so we have been identifying ways to keep people safe that are also aligned with the County’s ongoing work to reduce over-incarceration.

Our top priority was to slow the spread of the virus by safely keeping those who need to be in jail, in jail, and granting release to those who could be safely supervised in the community. This work has resulted in a near-30% reduction in the jail population right now. 

And in an effort to reduce economic barriers, the Department of Community Justice also suspended supervision fees for justice involved individuals. 

Community Health

Multnomah County continues to find ways to meet the needs of the thousands of community members who depend on us for quality, compassionate and low-or no-cost healthcare. COVID-19 has forced us to make hard choices about which programs to keep open, which to close and which to adjust.

The County’s Student Health Centers are among our most treasured and valuable community assets, ensuring that every Multnomah County student has access to comprehensive primary and mental health care for no out-of-pocket costs. We committed to strategically keeping one health center open, at Parkrose High School, in an area where the need for healthcare access is among the greatest.

I’m happy to share that we are still on track for expanding services where they’re needed most. Our newest school based health center is scheduled to open on time this fall at Reynolds High School in East County. 

We knew we had to find a way to continue serving our patients at our Community Health Centers, while also keeping our healthcare staff safe. So our clinical system scaled back its in-person services, and worked quickly to pivot toward alternative methods of care, like virtual and telemedicine. 

Our community health center patients know that we are here for them, even when these unsettling times mean we have to connect in slightly different ways. They know we’re making every effort we can to ease their worries and help them stay healthy. Last week, one of our clinics received a poem from a community health center patient. It’s titled Numbers on a Screen, and I’m going to read a section of it to you:

We are your patients, lifelong, and long-lived because of you. We are numbers on a screen too many, but we are more to you. We are your purpose, to give your healing energy day in and day out over the years.

We thank you, seriously, it is beyond words... 

That’s how we know we’re doing the right thing, not just in our clinics, but across all parts of the County. As long as we keep the people of Multnomah County — as our patient poet wrote — “our purpose,” we are on the right track.

Thanks to Commissioners and Staff

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic can’t be understated, but neither can the ways in which Multnomah County has responded. 

I am deeply proud of, and grateful for, all the dedicated and skilled Multnomah County staff members who have approached their work, whether in our buildings or from their homes, ready to respond quickly and effectively to protect the people and populations we serve. 

And I am especially grateful to my colleagues who make up the Board of Commissioners, each of whom have shown great compassion, vision and skill to lead our community in the face of this crisis: Commissioner Sharon Meieran, Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, and Commissioner Lori Stegmann. 

Closing

But here’s the thing: our commissioners and our employees were doing so much of this work even before we knew of COVID-19. We have been working on these systemic issues and inequities that result in daily injustices. 

And that’s why Multnomah County was able to spring into action once COVID-19 hit.

It takes a special type of person to do the work of addressing problems that, at times, feel intractable. But that's what Multnomah County employees do. That’s what the commissioners do. 

They show up. Day after day. To do the work. 

Because they know this work matters. It matters to them. It matters to the people we serve. And it matters to the health, safety and well-being of every member of this community.

I know we will need to figure out how to stretch our budget farther and how to force the state and federal governments to step up their support for local communities. That will happen, and we will do whatever it takes, however messy it gets, because that is who we are. We know our community, and we will fight to protect our ability to thrive.

And after COVID-19, we will continue to be the county government people can rely on. 

We’ll feed those who are hungry. We’ll support those who need addiction or mental health treatment. We’ll uphold public health. We’ll provide shelter to those without a home. We’ll help people reintegrate into the community after incarceration. We’ll provide accessible healthcare, marriage licenses and pet adoptions. 

We’ll be Multnomah County.

But until then, aside from staying home and staying healthy, what can you do for your community? We can’t all be out providing healthcare to people who are ill, stocking grocery shelves or providing shelter to those who need it now more than ever. 

But we can all do something. 

We can tend to our neighbors directly, and indirectly. We can fill out the census so that our community is counted correctly and comprehensively. We can practice patience and graciousness, not just to others, but to ourselves. We can vote in the upcoming May election to finally fund homeless services so we can be the first metro area in the country to actually do something to solve chronic homelessness. 

We have that power, and you can make that choice. 

This can be an inflection point – maybe more acutely, a reflection point, for us all to remember what is truly important. 

Before I close, I want to share one more word in addition to grateful that reflects the State of the County at this critical moment in our collective story: capable.

Multnomah County is capable of weathering this crisis. 

We are capable of coming together and looking out for each other during extraordinarily difficult times. 

We are capable of acting both compassionately and pragmatically. 

We are capable of emerging from this pandemic with an even clearer vision of who we want to be as a community. 

And together, Multnomah County is more than capable of achieving that vision.

Thank you.