July 20, 2020
Dear friends and neighbors,
This will be a long one; please bear with me. I’ll get to a COVID update, but first I’d like to address what’s happening on our streets.
Portland is in the national news. Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf came to town, declaring his intent to rescue us from a “siege.” Federal law enforcement has emerged from the federal courthouse onto the streets, using tear gas and the euphemistically termed “less lethal” munitions. One of those “less lethal” munitions was shot at a protestor, hitting him in the face. There were reports of federal officers driving around in unmarked vans, grabbing people off the streets with no explanation and no reading of rights. Every night since then, federal officers have gassed people gathered at the federal courthouse.
In an email sent by Acting Secretary Wolf on Thursday, he asserted that the administration was acting to protect the federal courthouse. That courthouse, he said, “is a symbol of justice - to attack it is to attack America.”
Acting Secretary Wolf clearly understands neither the history of our legal system nor the protest movement that’s sweeping the country. For too many people, courthouses are emphatically not symbols of justice. To the contrary: the quality of justice meted out within them is too often dependent on the color of one’s skin, or the heft of one’s wallet.
More fundamentally, he misunderstands the idea of America. America is not its buildings. The promise of America is not -- or should not be -- about buildings, or property. It is, or should be, about people. It’s about liberty and justice for people. And that liberty includes the right to protest without being tear gassed or shot in the face or disappeared.
This federal action is unacceptable and unconstitutional. These are not the actions of a mature democracy. This is not leadership. The federal forces need to pull back, and they need to pull back now. Investigations are underway, and the Attorney General and ACLU have filed suit to restrain the agencies involved. Let’s hope for quick issuance of that order.
The attention garnered by federal action has momentarily shifted attention from our local law enforcement response. It shouldn’t.
Each morning, I’ve watched videos from the previous evening, taken by protesters and by members of the press. I have also seen photographs and videos posted by the Portland Police Bureau. I’ve gone to the Justice Center on a Friday evening. What I’ve seen is a police response that is enormously disproportionate to the actions of the protesters.
Evenings begin with people gathering either at the Justice Center or at a couple of locations on the east side, generally in front of a police facility. A phalanx of riot gear-clad police officers stands in front of the building. The atmosphere is often more that of street party than protest. But people are yelling, getting up in the faces of the officers, and some are throwing things. At some point in the evening, the PPB declares a riot. It’s generally entirely unclear what has provoked the declaration. And what ensues is horrifying. Last night, multiple videos show the police charging protesters, running them over, grabbing them and throwing them to the ground, using their batons to hit people as they are running away. Journalists have reported being shoved, hit, and worse. And almost every night, hundreds of people are choking in clouds of gas.
A small number of the protesters are engaging in dangerous activity. Setting fire to buildings, shining lasers at the eyes of law enforcement -- these are dangerous. People who engage in these activities should be held accountable. I continue to worry about the safety of the people inside the Justice Center. I don’t condone property damage. I don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on fixing damage to our parks.
But the police response we’re seeing is disproportionate, even to the activities that many of us wish would stop. It is escalating conflict, not preventing it. I know that they are exhausted and frustrated. I get that it is not pleasant, to say the least, to be yelled at, to be threatened, to have things thrown at you. I believe that there are officers who genuinely believe in public service, and are distraught about the anger directed toward them. But none of that justifies this violence. It is their job to figure out how to de-escalate. This is not an equal battle. On the one hand, sworn representatives of the government, armed to the teeth. On the other, the people they are sworn to protect and serve.
Violence will not stop violence. It will escalate. It will continue to erode any remaining trust in the police. And if we continue on this path, local law enforcement will be seen as just as much of an occupying army as the federal troops.
State and Regional Trends
Almost four months after Governor Brown issued Oregon’s first “stay home” order, and one month after Multnomah County entered Phase 1 of reopening, the news is sobering. It was to be expected that case counts would go up as we reopened, but the increases have been sharp; and of even greater concern than the increase in absolute numbers of positive cases is the increase in the rate of positive tests (positive tests as a percentage of the total).
The statewide data shows a continued increase in the number of positive cases as well as in the positivity rate. The state’s positivity rate for all tests administered since the beginning of the pandemic is 3.9% -- well below that national average of 9%. The trends, however, are going in the wrong direction. The rate for the six day period from March 28 to April 3, at the beginning of the pandemic and when far fewer people were being tested, was 5.6%. By mid-May, it had dropped to 1.4%. Since then, it has risen steadily, and is back up 5.8% for the six days ended July 12.
While large, concentrated outbreaks were driving the numbers a few weeks ago, this appears to no longer be the case. Rather, as shown in the chart below, “sporadic” cases -- those with no known source of transmission -- are on the rise. At latest count, 45% of all cases statewide could not be traced to a known source. This is a concerning indicator, as the test/contact trace/isolate model is more difficult to implement fully without knowing the source of infection.
Tri-county indicators show similar trends, with negative results on three of the six public health indicators the Oregon Health Authority is monitoring at the county level.
In response to these trends, Governor Brown last week changed two guidances. She is now requiring face coverings be worn outdoors if six feet distance cannot be maintained, and is prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people. I am concerned about the fact that the limit on gatherings does not apply in other settings, including faith gatherings (which have been the locus of outbreaks in other parts of the state) and indoor dining at restaurants and bars. The evolving science indicates that the virus can linger in enclosed spaces, and there is evidence from other states that indoor dining and drinking have contributed significantly to increased spread.
Despite the upward trend in disease burden, Oregon is still doing well relative to other states. But the OHA has stated that if the current trend continues, hospital capacity will soon be strained.. That would put us right back to where we were in March -- a result we should do all we can to avoid.
BIPOC Data and Testing Access
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) continue to experience disproportionate disease burden. Latinx, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, and Black people, in particular, are testing positive and being hospitalized at significantly higher rates than their share of the population. This is a theme I’ve struck in almost every newsletter, and I’ll continue to do so -- both because this is a demonstration of racial injustice at work, and because it has serious implications for overall containment of the coronavirus.
Testing is the gateway to contact tracing and disease containment; therefore, we must be proactive about testing our most vulnerable communities. Four months into this pandemic, Multnomah County’s Public Health Department and the Oregon Health and Sciences University are the only providers of low barrier (free, no appointment necessary) testing in Multnomah County. The County is testing two days a week at our East County Clinic, with priority given to BIPOC and people without health insurance; OHSU has a test site at the Expo Center, and is also prioritizing BIPOC, including those without symptoms -- but the lines are hours long.
I believe, as I argued in my recent op-ed in the Oregonian, that the OHA should clearly recommend that all providers -- including the other large hospital systems -- prioritize BIPOC, even if they are not asymptomatic. The OHA should also require that all systems and testing facilities provide data about who they are testing. When we know our communities of color are exceptionally at risk, sound public health policy (and justice) requires that we do everything we can to proactively test, trace, and support these communities.
CARES Act Funding
The Emergency Board of the Oregon Legislature met on July 14 to allocate federal CARES Act funding. While much more federal assistance is needed, these were very important allocations:
$62 million to the Oregon Cares Fund for Black Relief and Resiliency to provide economic relief to Black individuals and businesses. National and state data show that the Black community is experiencing a disproportionate share of negative economic and health effects due to COVID-19. I was pleased to advocate and garner Board support for this fund$2.5 million to the Secretary of State's office to enhance election security in county elections offices.
.$50 million to support music, culture, and community venues and organizations that have been closed, cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic..
$35 million to fund $500 Emergency Relief Checks to Oregonians who are still waiting for unemployment benefits.
$30 million to the COVID-19 Leave Fund for workers who contract or have been exposed to the virus but do not qualify for traditional sick leave.
$25.6 million in emergency assistance for small businesses facing financial shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This supports businesses with no more than 25 employees that have not received support under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other provisions of the federal CARES Act.
$3.58 million of General Fund for infrastructure and improvements to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation water and wastewater systems. The Reservation is currently without running water.
At Multnomah County
The Board of Commissioners has voted to refer a library bond measure to the November ballot. Plans include construction of a new flagship library in East County, expansion or substantial renovation of seven branches, and upgrades throughout the system, including a state of the art and much needed sorting facility. In District 2, the North Portland, Albina, and St. Johns branches are all slated for significant renovation and/or expansion. The Albina branch will move to the site of the current Title Wave bookstore, on 7th and Knott. (While I know some users of the Albina branch will now have to travel a bit further, the move was necessitated both by the COVID pandemic, which requires that branches have more space to allow physical distancing, and by the fact that our lease at the current location is expiring.)
Finally, it’s easy to lose sight of this in the midst of all that’s going on, but we have a special election coming up on August 11th, for the Portland City Council seat previously held by Commissioner Nick Fish. Tomorrow, July 21st, is the registration deadline -- don’t forget to register, and don’t forget to vote!
In the meantime, wear your face-covering, stay safe, and stay healthy.