Politics

Oregon Legislature poised to spend $1 million studying state’s COVID-19 response

By Sam Stites (OPB)
March 1, 2022 12:07 a.m.

Democrats say they owe it to the thousands who lost their lives to figure out if more could have been done.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, pictured here in 2021, characterized the study as an “after action report” similar to those issued by the military following a particularly significant event.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, pictured here in 2021, characterized the study as an “after action report” similar to those issued by the military following a particularly significant event.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Democrats in control of the Oregon Legislature want to spend $1 million to hire an outside consultant to study the state’s COVID-19 response.

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The state Senate approved a bill Monday on a 17 to 9 party-line vote allocating the money and directing the Oregon Health Authority to find a third-party vendor to conduct the report.

The study would look at several factors in the state’s battle with coronavirus, including what worked well and what needs improvement or further investment, how different levels of government coordinated, how resources were used, what challenges the health care workforce faced, the efficacy of public health mandates and their enforcement, and whether or not health outcomes were equitable across different socioeconomic and racial demographic groups.

The survey would require input from state and local agencies, hospitals and medical providers, businesses, schools and individuals. An initial report would be required by Nov. 15 but the definitive report to lawmakers would be provided no later than Sept. 1, 2023.

Ultimately, this report would seek to answer whether or not the state’s response to the virus was effective. In Oregon, nearly 700,000 people contracted the disease, upwards of 27,000 were hospitalized and 6,582 died.

A brief comparison showed Oregon fared better than states of similar size, such as Oklahoma and Kentucky. Compared to those states, Oregon’s number of cases and deaths are nearly half.

In a floor speech Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, characterized the study as an “after action report” similar to those issued by the military following a particularly significant event.

“This is a term that’s been adopted in the private sector as well, and it makes sense because we have essentially been in a battle, a long war, for the last two years,” she said.

Steiner Hayward said the management of infectious diseases is one of the core functions of public health, and if state leaders want to improve public health, they need to know where they succeeded and where they failed during the pandemic.

“This is a simple, data driven exercise that will allow us to understand our strengths and our challenges,” she said.

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Senate Republicans — who have often railed against public health mandates such as masking and vaccine requirements — didn’t see it that way.

Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, opposed the bill, not because he doesn’t believe a study is warranted, he said, but because the proposal brought forth by Democrats doesn’t ask the right questions.

Linthicum said the bill’s language puts too much stock in data, and not enough in the quality of services rendered to Oregonians by health care providers and the state.

He suggested the state would be better served by looking at policies that “ruined lives,” such as mandates and shutdowns.

“(COVID-19) policy has impoverished tens of thousands of people in Oregon and millions around the globe,” Linthicum said, “And we seem to be interested in how many facemasks we handed out versus how many lives we destroyed … these social costs should be part of the equation.”

Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, retorted by acknowledging that school children, businesses and families have suffered through the pandemic. But the 6,582 Oregonians lost to the virus and more than 27,000 others hospitalized require an in-depth analysis of how the state can do better, she said.

Gelser Blouin asked her colleagues to ponder what might have happened if Oregon hadn’t done anything differently following the arrival of COVID-19.

“What would those numbers have been? Which of us sitting on this floor would not be sitting on this floor today? Because we wouldn’t be sitting anywhere. Which of us would have buried a child, a spouse, a sibling, a pastor, a friend? It’s hard to know,” she said. “What I do know is that we have exhausted and dedicated public health officials that have spent the last two years being attacked in the public, in the papers and sometimes even on this floor.”

Gelser Blouin recalled a dire moment from March 2020. She said she received a panicked call from a county commissioner in her district who was in line at a Home Depot purchasing every face mask they could to take to a veterans’ group home because there was no personal protective equipment readily available.

“This bill will help us make sure that doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Oregon deserves for us to do the best we can.”

Steiner Hayward said she doesn’t disagree with Linthicum that the state needs to better understand all the impacts of policies made during the pandemic. But those questions — which she framed as economic and education questions — are not related to public health.

“This is a focused bill,” she said. “This is a bill to understand whether what we’re doing as part of public health modernization of the state worked, or didn’t work, to keep people alive.”

The bill now heads to the House. If passed, the Oregon Health Authority would be directed to begin collaborating with county health authorities to identify a consultant to oversee the study.

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