As the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow in Multnomah County, Chair Deborah Kafoury has moved her office across the Willamette River to be in the midst of the government's response.
The traditional seat of county government, the Multnomah Building, is located at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge. But Kafoury decided to move to the nerve center of the county's emergency public health response to COVID-19: the Gladys McCoy building in Northwest Portland.
There, in the new health department headquarters that opened last year, Kafoury now occupies a conference room down the hall from Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines and Public Health Director Rachael Banks. Kafoury is also two floors down from the county's emergency operations center, set up to cope with the pandemic.
"Things are changing so fast" as the pandemic escalates, Kafoury told the Portland Tribune of her relocation on Wednesday. "I think it's a smart move."
It also could save some time.
Kafoury has been shuttling back and forth across the river quite a bit. On Sunday she spent four hours meeting with public health officials at the McCoy building on the west side of the river. The day before, she spent all day at the county's headquarters on Hawthorne talking to staff — basically "from sunrise to sunset," said the county's communications director, Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.
Decisions that impact lives
Kafoury discussed what it's been like, making decisions to try to balance saving lives against letting people earn their livelihoods a little longer before the pandemic really hits.
Public health experts — including Vines, who's been one of the most prominent public health leaders in Oregon during the last two weeks — have said the earlier that officials embrace policies to limit the spread of the disease, the more lives will be saved.
But that didn't make the debate over closing bars and restaurants any easier.
"We spent a lot of time over the weekend talking about the impacts of what seemed to be a really drastic move at the time, which was potential closure of restaurants and bars," Kafoury said.
"We went through the science, the public health strategies around social distancing. And then we also talked about the surge capacity of the hospitals. We also discussed the impact on our community, low wage workers, families who are living paycheck to paycheck. And trying to balance all of these is difficult," she added. "There's not really a right answer."
On Monday afternoon, Gov. Kate Brown changed her mind about keeping bars and restaurants after county Commissioner Sharon Meieran for the move in Willamette Week. That paper later reported other local officials, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, had been pressuring the governor to do so.
Was Kafoury one of them?
"I think that it's important for us to act as a state. Yeah, I can see situations where regional action
is beneficial. But my goal really is to ensure that our elected officials are, if not in complete agreement, really working in the same direction," she said. "We need the public to trust that government is doing the best they can and is giving the public accurate information."
So is the county mulling a "shelter in place" order telling area residents to stay at home except for non-essential trips, as has been issued in the Bay Area?
"We are evaluating hour by hour, what the next steps should be, while we're trying to finish the actions that we've already taken," Kafoury said.
Individual action needed
Kafoury said being in the middle of the county response at the health department enables her to make quick informed decisions with all the available information at hand. Trying to make decisions quickly entails getting people to yes, and making sure decisions are ethical, she said.
"It can be easy to get bogged down in process," she said.
But government actions can only go so far, and the most important thing, to Kafoury's mind, is that individual Oregonians take voluntary steps to avoid spreading the virus, and follow authorities' recommendations. She said that's how the U.S. can avoid looking like Italy, which on Wednesday reported 475 deaths in a single day.
Studies show the virus is often passed along by people who have no symptoms and don't realize they have it. That means stay at home when you can, and stay six feet away from other people to whatever extent you can, wash your hands frequently with soap for twenty seconds or more, use sanitizer and smother your coughs and sneezes with your elbow, experts say.
"We don't have a country like China where you can really force people, put armed guards outside apartment buildings," Kafoury said. "We're a pretty independent country."