Cases continue to rise across Multnomah County this week, disproportionately affecting communities of color, while clusters of infection increase among social networks and within households.
Public health officials told the Board of Commissioners at a regular Wednesday briefing on the virus that the increase was expected in the weeks after the state eased restrictions on retail ahead of Memorial Day weekend and other countries entered Phase 1 reopening.
It’s too soon to gauge what impact Multnomah County’s June 19 reopening will have on the country’s case count, but health officials will closely watch key metrics including hospitalization rates, intensive care unit bed occupancy and availability of ventilators to gauge pressure on the healthcare system.
Meanwhile on Wednesday a state mandate that residents wear face coverings in businesses went into effect in seven Oregon counties including Multnomah. Multnomah County strongly encourages residents who are able to wear masks to adhere to the rule, but does not plan to legally enforce the order.
The order requires employees and customers to wear a face covering inside businesses, with certain exemptions. Employers should provide face coverings, and it strongly encourages businesses to offer those at low or no cost. Businesses should also post educational material about face coverings in languages most spoken by their customers.
“There's good public health data and science behind the effectiveness of using face coverings and we want as many people to be protected as possible,” Public Health Director Rachael Banks told Commissioners Wednesday.
So the county will encourage people to use face coverings and help make them available to people most at risk. But it will not impose new legal requirements that may be unfairly enforced on black and brown communities.
“We don't want to see public health recommendations weaponized or used against people, people of color, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues,” Banks explained. “And we're encouraging the public not to police each other, to really be kind and non-judgmental. If you're in public and you see somebody who doesn't have a face covering, understand perhaps there is a reason they're unable to wear a face covering.”
Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked whether the mandate included shared residential settings such as communal apartment or condominium areas.
The mandate does not, Banks explained. But the good news is new science shows face coverings protect the wearer as well as those closeby.
“So in common spaces, it will provide more safety to wear them, as well as being mindful of shared surfaces and all public health recommendations,” Banks said.
Disease spread and testing
Face coverings will play a central role in reopening during COVID-19, helping to prevent spread even as friends and families begin to gather, and as restaurants and bars, gyms and salons reopen. Communicable Disease Director Kim Toevs reiterated that face coverings will be especially important when gathering with loved ones — those are the people we let closest and spend the most time with.
“People want a meaningful connection with one another, and it is human nature for people to want to socialize,” Toevs said. “The fact is much more likely we are becoming infected from a household member or friend. We let those people closer to our personal space. I would encourage people right now, those are the folks that are most important to wear face coverings with.”
And Toevs explained Wednesday, this is where the county is seeing an increase in cases of COVID-19.
There is not one single outbreak responsible for rising numbers in the area, and few confirmed cases say they have recently attended protests. But disease detectives are tracking clusters among specific communities, in households as well as in communities where people have begun socializing.
Communities of color, specifically some immigrant and refugee communities are harder hit by the virus. Many are essential workers who live in East Multnomah County and share a worksite, social groups and or households.
The county this week began working with community groups to increase education and outreach, distribution of protective equipment and discuss community-specific testing options.
Low barrier drive-through testing is available at Multnomah County East County Health Center, and prioritizes immigrant and refugee residents, people of color and others who don’t have a health provider or insurance. No one is turned away and testing is free (For an appointment, call 503-988-9093).
Personal protective equipment
Market supplies of personal protective equipment are increasing regionally while the County remains well-stocked with supplies to provide to community groups serving at risk populations, said Officer of Emergency Management Chris Voss.
The county is fielding about 400 requests a month from health care and community groups for supplies of face coverings, masks and hand sanitizer, with an expected jump in the last week as Multnomah County eased restrictions on businesses.
“We also see the costs for these supplies are continuing to decrease, so that’s a positive sign,” he said. “We feel pretty fortunate.”
The county has well over 1 million masks and thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer in stock and is working on new distribution plans that may include distributing cloth face coverings at library branches, Voss told Commissioners.
Vines added a word of thanks to the public for the rebound in PPE.
“This is huge and I want to thank the residents in Multnomah County who followed the stay at home order, because part of the reason was to buy time for personal protective equipment supply chains to come back online,” she said. “There was a time — it seems long ago now — we were really worried. I couldn't leave this topic without just publicly again thanking the residents of Multnomah County for following the governor's order.”