September 8, 2020

It was a busy Thursday morning for Multnomah County’s Emergency Operation Center.

The Operations team was shifting to a new data system for processing requests for personal protective equipment and other resources. The Logistics team was loading food boxes for individuals to support people who needed to isolate because of COVID-19.

Alice Bush, right, with EOC section leads Gail Zuro and Kristen Kuppenbender at the McCoy Health Department Headquarters

And the Public Information team huddled with Unified Command and Communicable Disease Services to develop communications that would help people with COVID-19 inform their close contacts.

It was just past 11 a.m. when Alice Busch, one of the Unified Commanders, took a call from Kelle Landavazo, emergency manager for the City of Gresham.

Landavazo reported that hundreds of people were lined up outside the local OnPoint Community Credit Union, waiting to redeem $500 COVID-19 hardship checks issued by the State of Oregon. 

Those waiting, Landavazo reported, were standing or sitting alarmingly close to one another, and many were not wearing face coverings.

And OnPoint, like other credit unions designated to process checks, had noted crowding across the state. Hours before branches opened, lines of people wrapped around buildings, crossing city blocks. Some came with coolers and hats, but many had neither water nor shade as they waited for what could be hours under a warm sun.

Landavazo’s City of Gresham team had already dropped off 1,000 masks for people waiting at the Gresham branch, and tried to space out the line. But there were more than 20 other credit union branches in Multnomah County — all facing the same thing.

“We have a big problem,” Landavazo told Busch.

Could Multnomah County help?

It was 11:21 a.m.

“We’re on it,” Busch said, and then hung up.

She turned to her team and said, “Let’s see if we can get these supplies where they need to be by 2:00 today, do you think we can accomplish that?” 

The team’s answer: “Yes, we can.” 

It was both an extraordinary — and everyday — event for the Emergency Operations Center, which has fielded 1,528 requests for support since fully standing up Feb. 28, the day Washington County reported the state’s first case of COVID-19. 

Located on the eighth floor of the Gladys McCoy Health Department in Old Town, the Emergency Operations Center is the command center for the County’s response to COVID-19. With staff from nearly every department in the County, the COVID-19 emergency response team at the County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is able to leverage an incredibly diverse team to provide critical services to our communities. 

Since standing up, more than 600 employees and volunteers worked countless hours seven days a week. They’ve stood up four physical distancing shelters and two voluntary isolation motel shelters, operated a call center, and issued hundreds of pages of public health guidance in multiple languages on the County’s COVID-19 website. Forty liaisons have had regular check-ins with more than 10,000 people across 27 sectors including faith-based communities, culturally specific communities,  businesses and schools, and many more. By summer, the Emergency Operations Center had collected and distributed 3.8 million — and counting — pieces of facial protection such as masks, face shields and googles.

“Those first three months, we got very little sleep. We were working every day sometimes into the early morning hours. Things were evolving so quickly that you’d leave the room and 15 minutes later things were different,’’ Busch said. “But you set these little goal posts and meet them.”

By mid-summer, the immediacy of the demands had downshifted into a grind. The urgent shifting needs were fewer, but there was an even greater need for the County to deliver such support as community COVID-19 testing, rent assistance, food relief and childcare in a trauma-informed, equitable way. Such efforts take up hours of discussion and back-to-back meetings. 

Landavazo’s request was a reminder that some problems can be solved in an afternoon. And some days people need that reminder. 

“It felt like old times. We’re going to do this and succeed, and that’s our job, and we're doing our job,” Busch said. “Every day is busy, but we don’t get those small accomplishments that help us remember we’re doing good work.”

Taylor Steenblock, one of the liaison leads for the Emergency Operations Center, knows what Busch is talking about. She’s part of a group that works with community members — nonprofits, businesses, faith groups, teens — to identify and solve problems. But she also knew about the state relief program and where the relief checks would be distributed as a member of the Government Relations team in her usual County job. She knew big problems aren’t easy to solve, especially immediately.

“We were able to hear a need and respond,’’ Steenblock said.

By the time Busch and Landavazo hung up that Thursday morning, Steenblock was already on the phone with OnPoint, completing a request for more than 32,000 KN95 masks to be immediately distributed to its 24 locations across the County. 

After she hung up, Steenblock walked across the eighth floor and talked with Nicolas Raethke, a library assistant serving as an Operations lead.

His unit was in the middle of upgrading its resource request process so it could better respond to future prolonged emergencies. Raethke set the work aside when Steenblock filled him in on the day’s urgent task. 

Steenblock had a list of credit union branches and the address for OnPoint’s headquarters. She needed people to drive bulky boxes of masks to all of the locations, in a matter of hours. First she needed to divvy up the credit union locations, so each driver could take a section of the County. 

Multnomah County staff Molly Dorney, Jun Zhu and Julie Young working on the COVID-19 response receive and distribute protective equipment at the Multnomah Building

It was an easy assignment for Raethke, who had worked for years as a library assistant in Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

“I worked at every library. I know every credit union and bank near every library branch,” he said. “People ask you that all the time when you’re at a reference desk.”

He drew up nine lists of locations and handed them over to Logistics section managers Gail Zuro and Kirsten “Kupp” Kuppenbender.

By noon, Kuppenbender had left the McCoy Building to join Molly Dorney and Julie Young at the Multnomah Building, where they prepared boxes containing 1,000 KN95 masks each. 

Zuro, meanwhile, coordinated efforts to reach the branches and find drivers.

“There's so much here that’s out of our control. But this was one thing that was concise,’’ Zuro said. “We have the supplies. We have the help. We got it organized and out the door.

“It felt like we had all the tools to resolve the problem. Everyone pulled together. Everyone did their sliver, and it all came together.”

Zuro called the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management to ask for help from the city’s network of Neighborhood Emergency Teams

Jeremy Van Keuren, the bureau’s community resilience manager, wrote a request for drivers and blasted it out to the network’s 2,104 volunteers by 1:11 p.m.

The first volunteer signed up at 1:13 p.m. Four minutes later, all of the slots were full.

When Zuro requested three additional drivers, Van Keuren reopened the request. Those slots filled, too — in under 10 minutes. 

By 2 p.m., 11 Neighborhood Emergency Team volunteers arrived at the Multnomah Building to load their cars. By 2:20, p.m. they were on their way. 

Jun Zhu, working that day as the Emergency Operations Center’s Multnomah Building Logistics lead, said it felt good to watch the operation unfold.

“This was an extraordinary day. The pace and necessity,” he said. “When something is really urgent and time sensitive, we showed we could mobilize quickly and get the job done. It was amazing how fast. My staff was on the spot immediately. The volunteers showed up right away. It was incredible.”

It felt good to help, in some small way, the people waiting to get their relief checks. 

As Zhu drove to work the next morning, he said, he passed a participating bank branch, and the long line that had already formed outside. 

“That was very real to me,” he said. “And we did something.”