COVID-19 Update: Jackson County Put on Watch List

by Curtis Hayden (September 2020)

The dreaded “Governor’s Watch List.” I was standing outside the Chamber of Commerce at the corner of E. Main and Pioneer, talking with Executive Director Sandra Slattery about how Jackson County had been reporting some ghastly COVID-19 numbers. Back in the halcyon days of March and April, the County Health Department’s daily report showed very few cases, going weeks without reporting a single one.

The Governor was so impressed that she allowed Jackson County to go into Phase 2 in mid-May, which meant restaurants and theaters could open up again as long as they followed all the protocols. The Governor also mandated that masks be worn inside (and later outside), as studies showed that it is the single most effective way to stop the spread.

Don’t believe me? On January 21, both the United States and Korea reported their first case of COVID-19. Korea immediately clamped down and also mandated the wearing of masks. The result? This country of 52 million people and a mere 600 miles from China across the Yellow Sea, recorded only 17,000 cases and 309 deaths over the last eight months.

The United States? Bah humbug on masks, testing, and/or banning large gatherings of people, and this country of 330 million has 5.8 million cases of COVID-19 and 179,000 deaths (as of Saturday, August 22). If Korea had been as lackadaisical about the coronavirus as the U.S., they would have suffered 28,206 deaths and not 309. And if we had been as diligent as South Korea, we would have recorded 1,960 death instead of 179,000. If that doesn’t make you mad, nothing should.

All of that is why Governor has mandated everything she has done, and Oregon has not suffered as badly as others. If she hadn’t, we could easily have been shouldering the same fate as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, which, for a variety of reasons, have seen huge outbreaks recently. (As a side note, South Korea also suffered a huge outbreak last month, and they have clamped down again. The increase apparently came from church gatherings in Seoul.)

Jackson County Goes on the “Watch List”

But back to the Governor’s Watch List. Sandra Slattery and I bemoaned the fact that the daily update from the County Health Department was depressing. Ever since being granted Phase II status, we have gone from daily cases of one or none to 10, 15 and even 20. Slattery wasn’t sure exactly how the Governor determined which phase a county would be subjected to, but according to her, we were getting perilously close to joining the Governor’s Watch List, and if we weren’t careful, we might have to slip back into Phase I status.

Two hours later, I got this email from Slattery: “I thought you would want to know this news just in,” and it included a link to KDRV announcing Governor Kate Brown’s decision to add Jackson County to Oregon’s COVID-19 “Watch List.” It brought the total number of “watch list” counties to eight.

“According to Brown’s office, counties are placed on the watch list when COVID-19 is spreading quickly and local health officials have increasing trouble with tracing those cases to a specific source. Specific markers include when there is a sporadic case rate of 50 or more per 100,000 people in the last two weeks and the county has had more than five sporadic cases in the last two weeks.”

Brown ended: “I’m urging all Oregonians to continue abiding by state orders and guidelines, including maintaining physical distancing, wearing a face covering, and practicing good hygiene. Remember, we are all in this together.”

An Interview with the Public Health Director

Meanwhile, I had a good conversation with Public Health Director Jim Shames on Tuesday, August 18. I cut straight to the chase: “Why are we seeing such a huge increase in daily cases lately?”

“Some of it is just the mathematics of how pandemics spread,” Shames said. “We are seeing an increase in clusters—when a member of a household gets it, then goes home and gives it every member of that house. If we can identify those clusters quickly and isolate them, we should be fine, although it is worrisome.”

Did he think we opened the economy up too soon? “Not necessarily,” he said. “We all could have stayed in our caves, but it’s a matter of balance. Not everyone could afford to be isolated; they were living paycheck to paycheck and needed to get to work. We have at our disposal the tools to control this thing, and I’m bummed out that it has become so politicized.”
Shames is looking forward to turning a corner with COVID-19.

“Our strategy is to find every case we can, then get them to stay away from others,” he said. “After that, we have case investigators call and try to ascertain exactly how they might have gotten it and where they have been. Then they follow up and try to contact all of those people. We do not tell them the person’s name, as it’s completely confidential, but we just warn them to be careful and isolate themselves as much as possible.”

Shames said their contact tracers are working around the clock, and that last week one person supplied the names of 67 people he’d come in contact with. Each one of them had to be called.

As far as testing is concerned, Shames said there is currently a backlog and that results can take 4-10 days.
“It’s very discouraging,” he said. “We have leaders who downplay the importance of testing. The gold standard of testing is the PRC test, which is very sensitive but takes some time to get results. Another is the point-of-care test, which is a little less sensitive and not as efficient at picking up a true positive … but you can the results almost immediately.”

Should everyone go out and get tested? “No,” Shames said. “But if you wake up in the morning with a cough and fever and feeling horrible, then you should go in for a test and immediately isolate yourself. A test is just a snapshot in time, and it could all be different later that day.”

Shames admitted that people needed to take the virus seriously and to pay attention to all the protocols. “We need to get creative and not do risky things,” he said. “We should eat outdoors at restaurants as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing. And please, wear your masks.”

Masks Could Save the Day

Probably the most concise explanation for why the United States went down the rabbit hole with the coronavirus and recorded the absolute worst response of any nation on earth came from a doctor in New York. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: “We’re fighting two battles on this front. One is with the coronavirus, and I’m confident we can win that one. The other is with stupidity, and quite frankly, stupid is winning.”

Take, for example, this exchange I had with a potential advertiser.

She: I won’t be advertising because people in Ashland aren’t willing to get out of house and see xxxxxxxx. Too much fear has been imposed on everyone by the government and media. The way things are right now and how people are being mind-controlled, it won’t change at least until election time.

Me: So what do you say to the 179,000 mind-controlled people who have died so far in this country?

She: Have you looked at how many people died from the flu this year or how many people die in Africa each year? The numbers are made up by the government. And see what they wear when they deal with the Covid patients. A mask isn’t gonna do it. Less than 1% of healthy people died during Covid, the rest were people with a ton of other things already. If you have a good immune system and healthy, you won’t even notice it. I get my information directly channeled from the source; you can call it god or the highest power, not the government.”

That type of attitude is the biggest reason why this country’s response to the pandemic has been abysmal. Nowhere has Lt. Colonel Stupid sowed more confusion and animosity than over the wearing of masks. It’s such an easy thing to do, but you constantly hear stories about crazy people attacking store employees who ask them to wear masks.

I also talked with a guy last week who was at Home Depot. He walked to his truck wearing a mask, and an elderly woman walked up and spit next to his front tire. She was wearing a tank top, and with a cigarette dangling from her lips, she muttered, “I ain’t wearin’ no damn mask.”

Members of the Army of the Stupid are everywhere, but thankfully they’re not the majority. I recently published my “Best of the Rogue Valley” readers’ survey in Grants Pass, arguably one of the most conservative communities in Oregon, and on the question, “Do you wear masks when out in public,” 83% of them said yes. So there’s still hope for humanity.

An Update on Ashland’s Response to COVID-19

According to the Jackson County Health Department, there have only been 22 cases recorded in Ashland since March 22. I would imagine the number of “active” cases is a lot lower than that.

Ashland is, however, a tourist destination, and we get a ton of people from the region and out of state visiting. Many of them congregate downtown, which is why everyone from the mayor, city administrator, police chief, and head of the Chamber of Commerce are rallying around the importance of wearing masks and letting out-of-towners—and even locals—know that they are required outside when you can’t maintain a social distance. And on the sidewalks of downtown Ashland, that means practically everywhere.

“We have created signage all over the downtown stating masks are required,” said Chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery. “One is a sandwich board that pictures an Oregon beaver saying, ‘Mask Up.’ We have encouraged our businesses to post signs like we do at the Chamber, and we also talk about it on our website and with many conversations on the phone and in person with those in our office.”

And what enforcement? “The only legal enforcement comes from OSHA, not from police or other government agencies,” she said. “Complaints are made directly to OSHA if a business is not following the state guidelines. Visitors to our office have actually said they appreciate we are requiring masks. Unfortunately, there are those who refuse to wear masks. They don't believe in them and they also share their opinions quite aggressively as to their objections with the requirement.”

Slattery is hoping enough people conform to the rules to decrease the spread of the virus.

“We, as you, want to do everything we can to support business vitality in Ashland and have worked hard to share the social distancing and mask requirements,” she said. “Some will just not conform to these requirements and it's an issue all over Oregon and the country. If it continues and the spread increases, they will have effectively created a step back for us all and cause serious harm to our economy. It's an example of how one person can make an impact, and in this case the totality of those who refuse to follow the requirements, creates a significant negative impact.”

City Administrator Adam Hanks agreed. “The City and Chamber have had this topic right at the top of our list and priority from the onset and continue to weave it into all of the outreach that is done,” he said. “We have a digital traffic control sign on North Main that we use for traffic safety signage for the Plaza closure (now only partial closure) for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The rest of the week the sign is changed to say ‘Stay Safe, Wear Masks.’ Councilor Jensen suggested it several Council meetings ago and we incorporated it immediately.”

Police Chief Tighe O’Meara also chimed in. “This is a tricky issue as the agency that actually has the enforcement authority is the Oregon Health Authority,” he said. “So we can all encourage people to wear masks, but in the end the people with oversight are not here. The businesses have the most power locally, as they can refuse to allow anyone in that isn't wearing a mask, and we, the PD, can back them up on that.”

Mayor John Stromberg had the last word.

“I concur with Sandra and Adam and would only add that the outdoor requirement is to wear a mask when social distancing isn't possible,” he said. “I think this is a workable requirement in that it allows someone to minimize many of the negative effects of wearing a mask simply by being alert to moments of close proximity as they present themselves and responding sufficiently quickly to maintain social distancing and/or put one's mask in place. I've noticed in stores that when a person does this, others seem to take note and cooperate. I'm not sure doing this happens as readily as in an indoor space but it's a 'practice' worth taking up that is community-minded in a positive way.”

Meanwhile, the City and Chamber are working on some permanent signs on every corner alerting people to the requirements on mask wearing. Hopefully, many of them will start paying attention.