November 9, 2020
Dear friends and neighbors,
We did it. Our country came together, during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and delivered the highest voter turnout ever. We elected a new president; and we elected the first woman, the first Black person, the first South Asian person, and the first child of immigrants as vice-president. My reaction to Kamala Harris' election was personal and emotional: the feeling of seeing someone whose family looks like my family headed to the White House -- indescribable.
Locally, too, there’s much to celebrate. We passed measures to create universal free preschool; bring our libraries into the 21st century; modernize high schools (I’m particularly excited about the focus on Jefferson High School and the Center for Black Excellence); and significantly strengthen police oversight. And the dedicated staff of our Elections division managed about as smooth an election as one could imagine, despite that record turnout and despite the considerable obstacles posed by COVID. Thank you to our Elections Director, Tim Scott, and his team -- they are the gold standard!
Every vote counts and must be counted. This, and the peaceful transfer of power, is what our democracy rests on.
COVID and Multnomah County
As we settle down from the stress and subsequent relief of election week, the COVID news is grim. As you know, the Governor has announced a two-week “pause” on certain social activities, beginning on Wednesday, for five counties including Multnomah. Among other things, this prohibits visits at long-term care facilities; limits capacity at restaurants and other venues; requires businesses to have employees work from home whenever possible; and limits indoor social gatherings to single households or no more than six people.
Our Public Health department is in discussions with the Oregon Health Authority about systems changes and other supports to help the Metro region control the spread. We are the economic engine of the state, and we need greater responsiveness to our specific needs, including better data, better coordination and communication, and broader access to testing.
The County continues to ramp up our own testing, focusing on the hardest hit communities. We now provide community testing at our East County Health Center, at Latino Network’s Rockwood site, and at IRCO’s mid-county site. These sites are intended for people who don’t have a medical home, are open to people of any immigration status, and prioritize Black, Indigenous and People of Color. We are also looking into developing mobile testing to reach our houseless communities and people who don’t have transportation. While this expansion is necessary, the County’s resources are limited. We cannot provide the kind of widespread testing that’s required to more effectively get a grip on this disease -- that has to be done in partnership with the state and with private hospital systems and labs -- and I continue to advocate at the state level for the kind of expansive, easily accessible testing that’s available in neighboring states.
We’re now entering flu season and the holiday season, both of which are cause for concern. Flu season will place additional demands on our hospital capacity as well as our testing capacity (an increase in people experiencing flu symptoms will create demand for additional COVID testing, as the symptoms are so similar). So this year, our flu response is part of our pandemic response. Please get your flu shots!
School reopening continues to be a significant concern for all of us. We know students learn best with in-person instruction. Unfortunately, Multnomah County is still nowhere close to meeting the metrics, even with the new, relaxed criteria recently announced by the Governor. One of the baseline metrics is a case rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents; we are currently at about 80 per 100,000.
A final COVID-related note about a wonderful resource put together by students, parents, and our communications team -- a COVID-19 Guide for Youth and Families. It includes sections on mental health, peer pressure, conversation starters to deal with difficult topics around COVID prevention, and much more, all presented in a frank, engaging, and understandable way. While intended for youth, I think parents will find it invaluable as well.
Racial Justice, Protests, and Public Safety Transformation
Last week, we were reminded, yet again, of why the movement for racial justice and public safety transformation does and must continue. Kevin Peterson, a 21-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by Clark County sheriff’s deputies on the evening of October 29th. Kevin was a North Portland kid; he went to The Village School, read poetry at Posie’s coffee shop in Kenton, and has siblings who still live here. Little information has been released about the circumstances of his death, but this we know: another Black man is dead. No matter what the circumstances, a system in which this happens again and again and again cannot be justified and must be transformed.
Last week also saw both peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and destructive activity by other, small groups of protesters. My complete statement is here, but in brief - while I’ve consistently supported protest and consistently opposed violent police response, the escalation of vandalism is setting us back, not moving us forward. We must continue to focus on methodically and systematically dismantling racist policy and programs. Non-violent protest, including civil disobedience, furthers the cause; vandalism does not.
The County continues our own racial justice work, both at a broad systems level and a more focused tactical one. On the systems level, a consultant has been hired to conduct a strategic planning and community engagement effort intended to inform the rethinking of our public safety work. On a more tactical level, the Board has begun to receive briefings requested as part of our budget process, including one on the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office training program; and one I requested, on our Electronic Monitoring programs. Additional components of this work are outlined on our Justice and Equity Agenda web page, linked to here.
In some good news, incidence of COVID in our houseless population remains relatively low. Of the more than 9,400 people in Multnomah County who have tested positive, only about 71 have identified as having experienced houselessness within the past 12 months. We continue to evolve our shelter system, recently adding a third isolation motel for people experiencing symptoms and an additional hotel that will be used as a physically distanced shelter. As we move into the winter, the Joint Office of Homeless Services is pivoting to its cold weather response, and has issued a request for donations of space and for volunteers. They are also hiring additional outreach workers to focus specifically on bringing families into shelter, and will be weatherizing our three outdoor camps by installing new pallet shelters in place of the tents people are currently sheltering in.
Our shelter service providers -- our contracted partners as well as County employees -- are stretched to their absolute maximum. Their job is difficult in the best of times, and these certainly are not the best of times. I am very grateful to them for their essential work.
As we move into the next year, I am excited about the fact that we’ll be bringing online the homeless services measure we passed in May. It’ll take time, but these funds will make a significant difference, and I’m looking forward to serving on the Oversight Committee that will steward them.
We’ll be analyzing this historic election for decades to come - but for now, it’s a time to celebrate the functioning of our democracy. And as we do, to remember that for too many people in this country, the promise of that democracy has yet to be delivered. That’s what we continue to work toward, in every way we can.