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Gov. Kate Brown Speaks In-Depth About Oregon's COVID-19 Response

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.

Q&A with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Dave Miller: Kate Brown joins me now to talk about tough decisions during a pandemic, where we are right now, and where we are headed. Governor Brown, thanks for taking the time to talk to us, and welcome back. 

Gov. Kate Brown: Thank you Dave, just delighted to be with you this afternoon.

Miller: So, first of all, can you tell our listeners once again – some people may not have heard this directly form you – what you want them to know about your stay-home order?

Brown: That’s a really good question. I think it’s pretty straightforward. We are encouraging all Oregonians to stay home to save lives. Here’s what we know about the COVID-19 coronavirus. We know that social interactions create transmission. So the goal of the stay-home order is to reduce transmission of the disease, and frankly to flatten the curve.

The curve we talk about is honestly our hospital bed capacity.

The harsh reality is that roughly 20% of human beings that are impacted by the disease wind up in the hospital – that’s a very rough number – and then a smaller percentage of them need intensive care. Why we want to slow the transmission is that we want to make sure that we have adequate hospital bed capacity to care for our most vulnerable Oregonians.

Miller: Given that many Oregonians clearly did not follow your strong suggestion to stay home – especially this past weekend – many people flocked to the coast, some people went to central Oregon from the Portland metro area. Do you regret not giving that order earlier?

Brown: This is really, really hard. That order substantially alters the way people live their lives. And I am aware that every executive order I issue at this point in time has a ripple effect on people’s lives and their livelihood. At first, I asked Oregonians to stay home. Then, as you said, on Friday, I urged them, I encouraged them to stay home. And, as you are well aware, I ended up then ordering them to stay home.

Miller: Right. In retrospect do you wish you had made the order earlier?

Brown: I honestly am making the best decisions I can with the best information I have at the time. Things change very, very quickly, minute by minute, hour by hour.

If you look at where Oregon is in terms of the actions, and the strong aggressive actions I have taken, it is either ahead of the curve or, frankly, it is the curve – from shutting down access to nursing homes and our congregate care facilities, to closing down our schools – we were the fourth state in the country to close down our schools. If you look at where another state is, the state of Washington, Gov. Inslee announced his stay-home order Monday night, but they are at least two weeks ahead of us, in terms of the disease. They have over 2,000 Washingtonians impacted at this point in time.

The actions I have taken are appropriate based on the data and the information that we had at the time.

Miller: Nevertheless, I’m sure you have seen the central criticism in a variety of places, in op-eds and articles in the past couple days that you have been too slow to respond to the crisis. Whether it was about closing schools or restaurants, or the recent stay-home order, critics say that – for very understandable reasons, for very understandable concerns about child hunger, or unemployment, or the economy as a whole – they say that, they fear that’s gotten in the way of an even more urgent public health crisis. What is your response to that specific criticism that’s come from a number of quarters?

Brown: I think that criticism is fair. But now I have to tell you that I’m getting criticism that my executive order on Monday is too strong. Here’s the harsh reality: None of us have lived through a global pandemic like this one.

I did get a note from mother-in-law about the polio epidemics that they had in the ‘40s and ‘50s, maybe that’s close, but this country, this group of people, this world has never seen anything like this. There is no playbook.

I am working hard to make the best decisions I can based on the information I have at the time. I’m relying on epidemiologists,   Dr. Renee Edwards at Oregon Health and Science University, Dr. Jennifer Vines, local county public health physician, Dr. Dean Sidelinger.

We’re relying on data, and we’re relying on hospital capacity. We’re also looking at what is happening in other states.

In these times, in these emergencies, we are moving as quickly as we can and figuring it out as we go along

Miller: What will you do if significant numbers of Oregonians don’t follow this order? I think it’s too early to know right now if that’s going to happen or not. But let’s say it does happen – that you see people congregating at parks, or there’s evidence that they’re getting together at dinner, or whatever. What would you do?

Brown: I’ve been very, very clear. Everything in my executive order is enforceable by law. I want my law enforcement troops to focus on real emergencies, and I’m calling on everyone to do their part. And if  they don’t, businesses will be shut down and, frankly, we will be issuing citations. But I am confident. I know that most Oregonians were compliant with the spirit of my request. I am confident that we can get full compliance.

The challenge then, and this goes back to the data – if we don’t get compliance, we are going to have to further restrict people’s activities. I don’t want to do that. I believe that the course we are on is the right one.

And we’ll be using modeling data, and our hospital bed capacity, and relying on expertise from physicians and epidemiologists to make decisions

I want to encourage every Oregonian not only to follow the spirit of the executive order, but to follow the law. This is one of those situations where each one of us can make a difference. I get up every morning believing I can make a difference.

In this circumstance, in this particular pandemic, our actions can save lives. We need to do everything we can to make that happen

Miller: You mentioned the advisers or health-care professionals or epidemiologists who you’ve been relying on over the last few weeks. Can you describe the worst-case scenarios that these advisers have presented to you?

Brown: The modeling that I have seen gives us a touch point. What I would say in terms of worst-case scenario. If we had taken no action, and if we weren’t doing the work we are doing right now to prepare for hospital bed capacity, we could be looking like New York. I am hoping to prevent that from happening.

Miller: Or Italy, which, you know, is two weeks or so ahead.

Brown: Or Italy.

Miller: Meaning doctors having to decide which 40-year-old to intubate, to give a ventilator to. People dying in hallways.

Brown: That’s exactly right. I believe we are on a good path, and time will tell. We will have information regarding available hospital bed capacity and an ability to preserve the working capacity of our health care workers, and that’s the data points I will be using going forward.

Miller: You mentioned briefly Oregon Health Authority numbers, hospital numbers. This is one of the changes you announced just about an hour ago, based on Society of Professional Journalists, Rob Davis at The Oregonian and other journalists saying we need better numbers from state health officials about how many people are in hospital beds, how many people are in ICUs, how many ventilators we have. How much of this information are you directing the state to make available to the public?

Brown: Yesterday I received a detailed request from members of the media, including the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists. As a result, I directed the Oregon Health Authority to look at the request and share all the COVID-19 information with the public that doesn’t compromise patient privacy.

Today, OHA has already changed their reporting to include the following information: Number one, age ranges by decade for all positive cases, previously they were giving larger age ranges, like 50 to 80 years old; (second), the hospitalization status of all positive cases, if known; and third, available hospital beds, including ICU beds and available ventilators.

Today, at this moment in time, we have 2,028 available non-ICU beds, and 394 available ICU beds, and 608 available ventilators.

Miller: Just to put those in perspective, because the raw numbers are helpful but so are the percentages. If my back-of-the envelope math is correct, we only have about a third of the state’s total non-ICU hospital beds available right now, statewide. Better numbers are that we have about two thirds of ICU beds available statewide. And we have about 85% of our ventilators still available. As we know, though, we have the fewest hospital beds per capita in the country. Should that change going forward? Has this pandemic been a wake up call that the system we have of prioritizing primary and trying to go an Oregon way, it works for everyday life, but it’s potentially scary during a pandemic?

Brown: The reason why we have, I think, on average, less hospital bed capacity than states across the country is because we’ve been focusing on keeping Oregonians well through primary care. I think that’s a really good thing. We are working to expand our hospital bed capacity. I have a joint task force that’s been wrestling with these issues for the past couple weeks. We’re getting recommendations and support and great ideas from all over the state – from using dorms at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. Mercy Corps has pop up facilities. We have got state facilities not being used right now like Hillcrest. And, of course, I have to add Wapato. Everything is on the list.

Our goal though, if we can get Oregonians to comply with the “stay home to save lives” measure – and we are doing a public communications campaign around that – is that we don’t need to develop all of this extra bed capacity. We have to have it ready, absolutely, in case the numbers we have are not right. But we don’t want to have to use this. We want Oregonians to stay healthy.

Miller:You mentioned – and this is a key part you’ve been stressing in various ways — how important it is for the public to understand what’s happening, having clear guidelines and to understand what’s at stake, so they will actually buy into social distancing.

Denver – as a city and as a county – when they put their version of a “don’t leave your home” ordinance out, people got text messages. I haven’t seen that from Portland or the state — a blanket emergency message using cell phones. I haven’t seen too much use of Facebook. Really, there have been press conferences, and radio and TV and newspaper coverage.

Do you have evolving plans moving forward with how to actually communicate with more Oregonians and perhaps to communicate directly with Oregonians?

Brown: That’s a great suggestion from the city of Denver. You were talking about the criticism I received earlier for not acting quickly enough – as a data point, Colorado has several hundred cases, and as of Monday, Gov. Jared Polis had not put in a stay-at-home order. So states are doing these differently, to meet the needs of their citizens.

I was focused on making sure we have an order that worked for all of Oregon, including rural Oregon.

In terms of communication, we are partnering with Oregon Health and Science University and the Oregon Health Authority, and then there’s a little firm you may have heard of called Wieden and Kennedy that’s going to help us with a creative and innovative communications plan about why it’s so important for Oregonians to stay home and comply with social distancing.

Miller: As you’ve been tightening legal restrictions on Oregonians’ abilities to congregate or to travel, the president seems to be losing his patience with this. What are the implications for Oregon if he decides to go against the advice of public health officials in favor of trying to boost the economy? What would that mean for Oregon?

Brown: I’m the governor of Oregon. My job is to keep Oregonians safe and healthy. I’m going to use every single tool that I have to make that happen. In terms of the president, I appreciate that he may be losing patience with the COVID-19 global pandemic.

But I’m dealing with more day-to-day barriers with the federal government.

One of the issues that my team and I have been focused on is making sure that we have enough personal protective equipment.

We are hearing from healthcare workers, from public safety workers, that they are running out, that they are being asked to reuse their masks, their gowns and their gloves. And that they are having to – and this is horrifying to me – that they are having to use homemade product.

I was just on a call his morning with my fellow governors. They are wrestling with these same issues. They have all gotten a limited supply from the federal government of PPE, personal protective equipment.

We have gotten about 25% of what we have asked for. But there are federal regulatory barriers – red tape – that we are trying to get this federal administration to change so that the makers, creators and innovators of Oregon, so that we can harness the community spirit we have here to make personal protective equipment.

This morning I sent another letter to the vice president.

We’re trying to get him on the phone again. All of our governors, with the exceptions of California, New York and Washington, are struggling with this very issue. We wish – I wish – the president would be focused on the health and safety needs all Americans.

We need personal protective equipment.

As you know, we are ramping up with testing capacity. But it took – my chief of staff was on the phone with the White House, with individual companies. We finally now have about a thousand tests per day.

We cannot use the South Korean model because we don’t have the testing capacity they have. But we have to protect our public-safety workers, our health-care workers. I think we should be protecting our grocery-store workers.

These masks they’re what, 75 cents a piece? This is outrageous. Oregonians should be outraged, and so should Americans.

Miller: Governor, I imagine you must interact with more people than many people, simply because of your job. Have you been tested?  

Brown: I have not been tested.

Miller: What would it take for you to get tested?

Brown: I could probably call my doctor and ask for a test. But, Dave, you raise a really good point. Under what circumstances are we testing people?

Because, up until probably this week, our testing capacity has been fairly limited, we are reserving it for our public health, our health workers on the front lines, our public safety workers – we need to make sure they can get tested – and of course, Oregonians across the state in every nook and cranny who are exhibiting symptoms.

Miller: I want to turn to the Oregon Legislature. It seems that there is going to be a special session next week. There are so many more needs right now than resources – that’s something you said yesterday. Whether it’s expanding unemployment benefits, strengthening medical response, paying for families that need more money for food assistance – the list is way longer than that. Oregon cannot borrow money for this stuff, unlike the federal government. We have to pay based on the money we have. What, to you, is most important? What kind of bill do you want to see lawmakers give to you?

Brown: In these unprecedented times, we need to move as quickly as possible to address Oregonians’ most urgent needs.

The good news is, I believe our U.S. Senate is going to approve a third package, that would bring over a billion to Oregon. This would literally be dollars in the pockets of our most vulnerable Oregonians. It would be financial assistance to small businesses. It would be dollars we could use at the state level to support our public health network. And it would be dollars in our local communities to bolster their public health needs right now.

Miller: That’s Congress. I’m talking about the Oregon Legislature, which is the only thing that you really have control over. Traditionally your approach has been a little behind the scenes in terms of lawmakers. You don’t seem to use the bully pulpit to say, “This is what I want, lawmakers. If you want me to sign the bill, make this the bill.” Does this emergency demand a different version of leadership, for you to say, “Hey, I’m the governor, this is what I want”?

Brown: I have been very clear with legislative leadership about what it is I need, and what I need to continue to manage this global pandemic.

Miller: What is it? That’s what I want to hear.

Brown: I’ll tell you.

Number 1: $250 million in a special-purpose appropriation. Those resources are to be used for supplies and agency needs. There is an approval process. They would have to go through the E Board (Emergency Board) so there would be a public process before those dollars are actually spent.

I’m asking for an additional $100 to $150 million to go into the e-fund (emergency fund) to address other emergencies.

Great example of this is the fact that much of the state is in drought. We are likely to have a challenging fire season, and our department of forestry needs to have the resource to tackle these issues.

This third thing I have requested, we’re talking about policy changes, and we are working through those in terms of what we need right now.

Miller: At this point, does it seem likely to you that K-12 schools are going to be open again by the end of the school year?

Brown: Can’t answer that question at this point in time, Dave.

I know parents, kids, and of course teachers are wanting certainty.

We need more information and more data bout whether the aggressive tools that we are now using to encourage Oregonians to stay home are working. And I expect we’ll know that information in the next couple of weeks.

I know it’s really important. There’s a lot of kids out there.

One of my staffers’ kids cried the whole morning when she learned that school was closed. This is really hard on children. It’s really hard on parents.

And I know teachers across the state love the work they do and they know the work makes an incredible difference. We just don’t know the answer to that question right now.

Miller: What are you most worried about right now, and what is giving you hope? But if you could, start with the worry.

Brown: I was up at 5:40 this morning emailing my team about ensuring that the federal government – that the Trump administration – takes action today to allow our local manufactures to produce professional personal protective equipment. That is what keeps me up at night.

What gives me hope is the modeling I’ve seen which will be released tomorrow morning when it’s finalized, that gives me a level of hope that the measures we have taken are working. Obviously, we always have to go back to rely on our ability to provide hospital beds and to have healthcare workers continue to serve on the front lines.

Miller: Kate Brown, thanks very much for your time. I look forward to talking again as this pandemic continues to move to the next phrase. Thank you.

Brown: Thank you so much for your work, Dave. 

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dave Miller