Commissioner Jayapal's Newsletter: December, 24 2020

December 24, 2020
Dear Friends and Neighbors,

It’s startling to think back to December of last year, and try to remember that time when we had never heard of COVID-19, did not know the name and story of George Floyd, and there were 18 candidates remaining in the presidential race.

What a year 2020 has been. Tragic, frightening, isolating, divisive. A pandemic; wildfires; economic disaster for so many people and small businesses. And also an uprising for racial justice; the successful development of new vaccines at unprecedented speed; and an election that demonstrated that our democratic processes continue to function, despite the best efforts of a president and his feckless minions.

I know that people are tired of being told that things will get better; and yet it’s true. Last week, our first allotment of vaccines arrived in Oregon. This is not the end of the pandemic, not by a long shot; but it is the light at the end of the tunnel. Our job now is to continue to travel through that tunnel -- six feet apart, and with our masks on.

Multnomah County COVID Update

As you can see from the chart below, the number of cases started rising in September, spiked in mid-November, and seem to have plateaued at that higher level. While that’s better than a continued increase in the weekly number of cases, it still paints a dire picture of the extent of community spread of the virus, and it is critical that we continue to flatten the curve over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period.

It’s important to remember that the arrival of the vaccine does not diminish the need for the vital public health work necessary to slow the spread: testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantining, and wrap-around supports for those who need it.

To that end, the County continues to expand its low-barrier testing capacity.  Since my last newsletter, we have added a community testing site in North PortlandThis site, operated in partnership with Portland Community College, pairs flu vaccination with drive-through COVID testing, and, as with all our sites, prioritizes people without a medical home. I recognize that even people with primary care doctors continue to have trouble getting tested, with long wait times both for tests and for results. This is a state-level issue and one that has been a source of frustration from the beginning of the pandemic. There was news last week that the state has acquired additional capacity; we will see whether that translates into a perceptible difference in the ease of getting tested.

Our Public Health Department also continues the work of contact tracing. With the surge of community spread over the past couple of months, it’s no longer an efficient use of resources for us to try to track down everyone who has been exposed to someone who has tested positive. Like many jurisdictions across the country, we have pivoted to focus on situations that present the most risk of a concentrated outbreak, and are asking people who do test positive to notify their close contacts immediately rather than waiting for us to do so.

Vaccine Distribution

Last week was truly a milestone, not only in the COVID crisis but in public health generally. Getting these vaccines approved in such record time was an extraordinary feat. And watching people begin to get vaccinated was exciting and emotional.

The logistics and planning for vaccine distribution are, to say the least, complicated, and everyone has questions. This link to a briefing by the state’s Public Health Director, Rachael Banks, and Senior Health Advisor Dr. Paul Cieslak provides answers to many of the most common questions.

Planning is made even more complicated because the federal government continues to make last-minute changes to Oregon’s allocation of the vaccines. The latest news is that we can expect approximately 100,000 total doses to arrive this month. Allocations for the next few months remain unclear.

Deciding who gets vaccinated first is agonizingly difficult. Here’s a link to the state’s sequencing plan. In general, healthcare personnel and first responders will be in the very first phase (Phase 1a). Following in Phase 1b will be other essential workers, and in Phase 1c will be adults with high-risk medical conditions and adults 65 and over. The timing of when we’ll get to these subsequent phases is unclear because it depends on the flow of additional doses, but we heard in a briefing this week that we likely will not get to Phase 1b until February. In another recent development, Governor Brown has announced that teachers will be included in Phase 1b -- this is good news for the prospects of getting children back to in-person learning sooner rather than later.

Recent MultCo Board Action on Eviction Moratorium, CARES Spending

Our last board meeting of the year, on December 17th, was packed with important votes, including the following:

Extension of the eviction moratorium. Housing is a public health issue. Evicting people during this pandemic puts not only their health but community health at risk -- so this was a necessary action. The legislature has since followed suit. I recognize the hardship this imposes on landlords and was glad to see the legislature approve landlord assistance in its special session on Monday.

CARES spending. In a series of votes, we authorized the allocation of remaining CARES funds. These funds have been crucial to our COVID response; and at the same time, the planning and logistics required to spend them by the December 30 deadline have been extremely challenging.  Federal constraints and constantly changing guidelines have complicated the task, as has the fact that the nonprofit partners we work with to distribute funds are stretched to their very limit.  I am very appreciative of the work that hundreds of County staff have devoted to ensuring that these funds are used in the most effective way possible. A guiding strategic principle was to deploy them, as much as possible, to meet immediate needs while also serving longer-term goals. 

With this in mind, our most recent investments included:

  • The purchase of countywide PPE, especially for underserved communities;

  • Direct client assistance to nearly 9,000 people;

  • The purchase of two new shelter sites and winter weather supplies for homeless services, including 100 pallet tents; and

  • Business relief grants to small businesses including restaurants and food carts.

Both shelter sites are in District 2: a vacant Rite-Aid at 1952 N. Lombard St., which will be used as a severe weather shelter this winter and then as a full-service shelter after the pandemic; and a 59-room motel at 1530 NE 82nd Ave. which is currently being leased as a shelter for people at risk of serious infection. These are prudent investments, and examples of how we’re trying to use COVID funds in a way that will serve us for the longer term. I recognize that neighbors -- particularly near the Rite-Aid site -- would have liked more notice of these plans. The federal guidance that allowed us to use funds for shelter acquisition was issued only recently, with the deadline of December 30th -- so these plans came together extremely quickly, and without opportunity for the community engagement that I would ordinarily like to see. As our plans firm up, we will reach out with additional information and opportunities to ask questions.

Supportive Housing Services Measure

The Board also approved Multnomah County’s Local Implementation Plan for its share of the revenue from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure passed in May. This is a significant milestone for our work on homelessness.

The plan provides a strategic overview of how we plan to spend those funds: a comprehensive package of rent assistance and supportive services, including behavioral health and other wrap-around services necessary to help people find and stay in housing. The plan -- and the measure -- are ground-breaking in several respects, chief among them the regional approach and the focus on racial equity. People of color -- particularly Black and Indigenous people -- are disproportionately represented among people experiencing homelessness. We simply cannot solve this problem without crafting strategies designed specifically to support these most impacted communities.

Much more detail needs to be provided as we move into implementation. I will be particularly focused on ensuring a robust data collection, analysis, and reporting system, with clear metrics and desired outcomes. You, the voters, put your trust in us when you approved this measure, and we must repay that trust with transparency and accountability.

The plan goes next to a Regional Oversight Committee, on which I serve; and then to Metro Council for its final approval. Revenue will not start flowing till July 2021; this seems a long way off to those feeling the urgency of the issue but is in fact a very compressed timeline for the size and scope of the effort.

Other Work

I’d like to highlight a couple of other areas my office has been working on, in partnership with constituents: 

Safe parking/alternative shelter strategies. Long term, permanent housing solutions are the most effective way to address homelessness and are the focus of the Supportive Housing Services (SHS) measure discussed above. At the same time, there is no question that COVID has exacerbated how people are experiencing homelessness, with an increase in unsheltered homelessness and associated health and safety issues. We need some immediate and emergent strategies as well, to bridge us until we’re able to fully deploy the SHS funds.  Such strategies include additional forms of shelter designed for people for whom our current shelters do not work. People living in their vehicles are one such subset of the population of people experiencing homelessness. Safe parking programs -- which we do not currently have in our array of options -- provide safe, legal parking; hygiene facilities; and connection to services. They are not a permanent solution but can provide a stepping-stone to stability. A number of District 2 residents have been working on creating such an option, and my office has been supporting this effort. We are working to identify a site and/or a host organization; if you have ideas, please let me know.

Community violence. We’ve all read about the spike in violence since COVID. Portland and Multnomah County are not unique in this respect; it’s happening all over the country. There are many contributing factors, but the deep and complicated impacts of COVID are clearly at the forefront: economic despair, isolation, behavioral health issues, no school, sports, work, or other activities for youth. The frayed relationship between law enforcement and the community may also be a contributing factor.  We need a multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response to this violence -- one that’s responsive to what people and communities tell us they want. I am working with partners in the Cully neighborhood, one of those most impacted by violence, to create such a response: a response that’s community-led, specific to the needs of the neighborhood and its residents, and focused on upstream interventions.

In closing

As I think about the season that’s upon us, and about our most pressing issues -- including homelessness -- I think about the concept of posada. The literal translation is “inn”.  But it’s also a Christmas tradition in many Spanish-speaking countries, commemorating Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, and search for shelter. And even more broadly, it’s a concept of generosity and expansiveness, to strangers as well as to family and friends -- a concept that’s at the core of all religious and spiritual traditions.

As we approach the new year, I wish you all the generosity, love, and expansiveness of this season; and I look forward to sharing with you the light that I believe 2021 will bring.

Susheela

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