November 25, 2020

Elected local leaders gathered virtually Monday night for a briefing on the public health response to COVD-19. 

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Mayor Ted Wheeler were joined by County Commissioners Lori Stegmann, Jessica Vega Pederson, Susheela Jayapal, and City Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan to hear from Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines and Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey, who outlined the County’s response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and the risk of a worsening trend through the winter.

“The virus is spreading beyond our ability in public health to notify each case and carefully quarantine contacts of that case,” Vines said. 

The shift comes amid a statewide freeze which limits social gatherings and dining in restaurants, hearkening to the “Stay Home Save Lives” order issued in the spring. 

Cases rose last week for the seventh consecutive week, and hospitalizations and test positivity rose for the second week in a row.

As local Public Health reached capacity in its response, officials diverted senior epidemiologists from individual case investigations to conduct more of the higher-level, data-driven analysis that’s needed to inform policy. And case investigators are prioritizing outbreaks, specifically in high-risk settings such as long-term care facilities and other congregate spaces. 

Investigations are no longer able to reach every person who tests positive for COVID-19 across the community, and contact tracers are no longer able to attempt to reach all close contacts. 

“When we have the rapid, widespread virus transmission that we’re seeing now, that kind of contact tracing is less effective. We have to ask people to pull back. You have seen this all over the world with new mandates to get people to stop mixing and socializing to slow or stop the spread of the virus,” Vines said Monday night.

Both Vines and Guernsey emphasized Multnomah County’s continued focus on helping those most at risk of being severely affected by COVID-19, including seniors, Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. 

“This is a huge extensive effort that we’re doing in concert with culturally specific community based agencies that are funded both by Multnomah County and the State but also our own staff,” Guernsey said. “So we’ve moved from a more rigorous system of contact tracing to making these resources more accessible to people if they’re in the network of being exposed.”

During the update Chair Kafoury, Dr. Vines, and Guernsey also answered a few questions from the public. Kafoury thanked those who attended and advised that the public continue to look out for changes in protocol as the pandemic continues. 

“We need to take this seriously and we need to as leaders remind our community that they need to take it seriously, follow the state’s guidance so that we can think hopefully about reopening when it is safe,” Kafoury said.